East Timor: President Rejects Woman Defense Minister

On Monday, Tempo Semanal newspaper leaked the proposed cabinet of the new coalition government in East Timor, which included Maria Domingas Alves (known as Mikato) as Minister of Defense and Security, the highest civilian position presiding over the armed forces.

Fundasaun Mahein and news sources reported Tuesday that new President Taur Matan Ruak, himself long-time leader of the guerrilla resistance and then the independent nation's armed forces, has shown his objection to the nomination. Behind the scenes, it appears, negotiations led to the naming of Cirilo Jose Christopher in her place.

Mikato is one of East Timor's highest-profile women in politics, having presided over the Ministry of Solidarity and Social Services, during an extended crisis of internal displacement, the launch of an old-age pension and aid to veterans.

Image courtesy of Rede Feto

Image courtesy of Rede Feto

The day after these reports, Rede Feto women's network stated [tet] in a press conference that the President's suggestion that Mikato was not right for the job

Tamba ne’e ami husi movimentu feto Timor Leste hato’o deskontentimentu ba liafuan refere nebe hatu’un dignidade feto Timor leste, nomos ignora Feto sira nia kapasidade nebe hatudu ona liu husi desempenhamentu nebe halao ona durante tinan 5 hodi fo’o susesu maka’as ba governasaun AMP I

Because of this we of the women's movement in Timor Leste manifest our discontent with [the President's] words which reduce the dignity of East Timorese women, and ignore women's capacity that was well demonstrated [by Mikato] in her over five years contributing strong successes in the administration of the first coalition government.

The Women's Group of Parliament spokeswoman told the media [tet] that this episode “kills the spirit of participation among women”.

University of Timor Leste professor Matias Guilherme was interviewed by Timor Post on the issue (published [tet] on Timor Lorosae Nação blog)

Nia informa, agora ne’e presiza maka kapasidade da lideransa, la presiza nia tenki mai husi militar, Background militar maibe nia labele jere ou administra instituisaun Defesa no seguransa, ida ne’e mos sai kestaun bot ida.

He informs that what is needed now is leadership, there is no need for a military background. [Somebody] with a military background with no ability to manage or administer Defense and Security, that would be a much bigger issue.

Blog Forum Haksesuk explains [tet] that Mikato refused a subsequent offer to go back to her same ministerial post from last government, because she was “offended”, concluding that this “soap opera” lead to her “sacrifice.”

Founding the nation

Since the days of Muki Bonaparte, a founding member of East Timor's major party proposing independence, women have played a visible role in politics and national life. Rede Feto writes [tet]

Partidu Politiku rasik loke sira nia odomatan atu feto sira bele involve no organiza sira nia atividade. Organizasaun OPMT (Organizasaun Popular das Mulheres de Timor) hanesan organizasaun feto ida ne’ebe hahu sira nia atividade iha fulan Agostu 1975. […] Comite Central Fretelin (CCF) mos fo fiar ba feto ida hanaran Rosa Bonaparte Soares/Muky atu bele lidera organizasaun ida nee.

The political parties themselves opened the door for women to enter and organise their own activities. The organisation OPMT (Popular Organization of Timorese Women) was a women's organisation that started its activities in August 1975. The Central Committee of Fretilin (CCF) trusted one woman named Rosa Bonaparte Soares/Muky to lead this organisation.

Even after her martyrdom on Dili's docks with Isabel Bareto Lobato and Silvina Namuk on the Indonesian invasion in 1975, women continued to play an important role in East Timor's resistance, in all of its forms armed, clandestine and diplomatic. Clandestine activist women like Maria Goreti paid the ultimate price. Other women like Mana Bisoi (Pt) fought in the armed resistance and continue to represent women in public life.

An East Timorese woman holds up her stained finger after voting. Photo by United Nations Photo (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

An East Timorese woman holds up her stained finger after voting. Photo by United Nations Photo (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Australian researcher Sarah Niner wrote earlier this year on her blog

The women who fought accepted that the struggle for women’s rights was not possible during the fight for independence. However, the struggle for independence created a pool of highly skilled and motivated women who no longer accepted the status quo and today work toward equity for women.

Since independence

In governments since independence, women have held key ministries, such as the Ministry of Finance and Ministry of Justice. East Timor's constituent assembly and first governments had relatively high levels of representation of women, with near 30% of parliament as women in the last parliament. This parliament has even more, with 35% women, according to the blog Forum Feto Global.

But are numbers indicative of real representation? Susan Marx wrote prior to Timorese elections this year on Asia Foundation's blog

[…] Timorese women are questioning the practicalities of participating within a historically patriarchal society. What was interesting in our research was that many of the women currently active in politics were adamant in demanding more meaningful participation. They cite the lack of women in leadership roles and decision-making positions as evidence that political parties use women’s participation only in an attempt to placate critics and to satisfy the quota requirements. Other potential candidates cited the lack of regard for women’s views within the political fray as one of the main deterrents from becoming involved themselves.

The controversy over Mikato certainly raises the question of whether Timorese male leaders perceive certain roles to be male-only in nature. Niner asserted  in March

[…] ongoing conflict, and an aggressive political culture, favours a type of strong, militarised masculinity that marginalises women, placing them in less visible ‘traditional’ roles, and has a negative effect on their status and political participation.

Facebook user Juvinal Inasio wrote publicly [tet]

La etiku liu hodi diskrimina feto hodi kaer pasta Ministra Defesa………..!!!!!!!!!! Bainhira ulun boot sira elimina Micatohusi kargu ne'e, signifika ita nia ukun nain sira la valoriza feto atu partisipa iha prosesu dezenvolvimentu nasaun…………….Ita nia ukun nain sira mesak b**** ten deit bainhira sira iha kampanha hateten sei promove jeneru……….!!!!!!!! …………..Nune'e feto sira, lalika fiar tan sira……!!!!!!!!!!

It's not ethical to discriminate against women in the Ministry of Defense cabinet position….!!!!! When the big bosses eliminated Micato from the position, it means that our leadership does not value women's participation in the process of development of the nation……. Our leaders are just liars when they campaign they say they will promote gender [equality]…..!!!! So women, don't believe them any more…!!!!!!


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