Palms Australia’s overseas development volunteers have been building the capacity of women in remote communities since 1961, so choosing one to focus on this International Women’s Day was no easy task. This year, we decided to catch up with Michelle Rankin, who recently returned to Australia after volunteering with the Balibo Community Learning Centre (CLC) in rural Timor-Leste for two years. Achieving development goals in a local setting, particularly gender equality, is a collaborative effort. Below, Michele reflects on how she exchanged skills and collaborated with locals to help improve outcomes for women.
Tell us a little bit about your role at Balibo CLC
Balibo CLC is a community organisation that began in 2004 to provide community services like vocational skills training, dental services, English classes and women’s agricultural cooperatives. The Centre was built as a tribute to the Balibo Five, and this strong connection to Australia makes it a popular spot for overseas visitors. The Centre also houses a cafeteria, which serves food that is 100 per cent locally sourced by the Women’s Agriculture Cooperative. The success of the cafeteria has allowed the Centre to offer hospitality skills training to local women. My role involved building the staff’s strengths in computer skills, financial management and business processes, and increasing their capacity to design, manage and evaluate their activities.
Describe some of the barriers women typically face in remote areas of Timor-Leste.
Gender roles in Timor-Leste are typically very traditional, and this was something we had to consider when creating opportunities for women. We wanted to create opportunities that we knew wouldn’t be socially or culturally problematic, but still provided an opportunity for women to move out of the home and into the workforce. This involved creating opportunities for women to work in our cafeteria, providing them with hospitality, bookkeeping and managerial skills. It also involved prioritising opportunities for widowed women, who are typically more vulnerable.
Another big issue for women in remote areas is a reluctance to access hospital health care, particularly maternal health care. Through the Centre’s Rotary program, we were able to develop an initiative that provides care packages to mothers of newborns (including things like clothing, nappies, towels and toys). The packs are distributed by midwives at the local hospital, which incentivises hospital visits, removes the fear of hospitals, and mitigates the infant mortality rate. The program also involves delivering care packages of school supplies and household items to single mothers in the region.
What kind of opportunities were you able to help create for local women?
In addition to the opportunities described above, my counterpart, Rofina, and I helped create opportunities for local women working in agriculture through the Women’s Agriculture Cooperative. Along with providing produce for the cafeteria (including incredible coconut, tempeh, lime and peanut butter), the Centre also engaged local women to make woven baskets to sell some of the foods in. Through the Centre’s hospitality training, we developed a menu for overseas visitors that incorporates Malae (western) and Timorese foods. We also developed learning and development plans for local staff that aim to build their skills and capacity in areas like dental hygiene, hospitality and management.
We also partnered with Days for Girls, an organisation that increases access to menstrual care and education, to educate girls in school. In remote Timor-Leste, girls are often forced to stay at home or leave school when they get their periods. We worked with the local hospital to arrange female doctors to visit schools and educate and provide resources for young women. Along with creating awareness and reducing stigma, it was also very empowering for local young women to meet with a female doctor; a role that is not widely seen as accessible in Timor-Leste.
What were you able to learn from the women you worked with?
The progress made during my time at Balibo CLC was a collaborative effort between Rofina, the wonderful Centre staff and I. Rofina provided the insight into culture I needed to make the Centre’s initiatives achievable and sustainable. The women I worked with taught me the patience and tolerance necessary to succeed in my role.
What kind of change do you hope to see for women in Timor-Leste in the future?
If I were to return to the centre in five or ten years, I’d hope to see my colleagues continuing to develop their careers. I’d like to see more women working in the dental clinic, and more women applying for dental roles. I’d also like to see the Centre’s cafeteria being staffed by more women and operating full time. I think there’s a huge opportunity for women in coop shops, so I hope to see more of these. Generally, I’d like to see more women finding empowerment through employment opportunities.