Feto Forti: International Women’s Day in Timor Leste

Feto Forti: International Women’s Day in Timor Leste

by Gabby Rankin

The Balibo 5 Community Learning Centre (CLC) exists to serve the community. This is possible because of the passion and determination of the women who work there.  There are currently, 3 women who are in managerial roles at the Centre. Ella Soares manages the Balibo 5 Cafeteria, the Women’s Sewing Group, is a Days for Girls Ambassador, and works as a Tour Guide under the Balibo Trails Social Enterprise. Sidonia Tilman, a dental assistant, is the onsite manager for the Balibo Dental Clinic. She also manages the Days for Girls distribution and Sex and Health Education information sessions.  Rofina Aifunan is the Balibo CLC Administration and Finance Manager, Women’s Advocacy Hub Manager, Days for Girls Ambassador, and an English Teacher trainee. PALMS volunteer Michele Rankin mentors, trains, and identifies opportunities for these Feto Forti, or strong women.

On International Women’s Day 2020, it is important to celebrate the achievements of these Feto Forsa. They represent what empowerment means outside a Western lens. Women in Balibo have specific gender roles that are different from women’s roles in western society. It is important to respect these values, and work with the cultural system.

Being a PALMS volunteer means participating in a mutual exchange of skills and knowledge. These women have taught me, among many things, how to define yourself as a strong woman. In Balibo, this means respecting social norms. It is the only way to earn the acceptance and respect necessary to enact change. Empowerment comes from self-belief and improvement. So the women of CLC work subtly and strategically, and have the inner-confidence to seize opportunities.

The Balibo 5 Cafeteria demonstrates this. Cooking and serving is women’s work, so the men are immediately not interested. Only women work at the Cafeteria—from Ella, the manager, to the casually employed kitchen hands and waitresses—and only women receive financial gain.  Of all the income streams in Balibo CLC, the Balibo 5 Cafeteria is the biggest profit maker.

The future Women’s Advocacy Hub, of which Rofina will be the manager, is another example. The Centre will be dedicated to female empowerment, mainly though female health education, employment, and self-development. Mention the word menstruation and the men are eager to give their approval, provided the conversation ends as soon as possible. By working within accepted activities for females, you can create financial, educational, and personal improvement opportunities for girls and women.

Ella, Sidonia, Rofina, and Michele are role models, both for me and for the wider Balibo Community. They demonstrate that girls have potential outside the traditional role of motherhood. They emphasise the importance of self-improvement, through education or confidence or hard-work. They work in the pursuit of benefiting the community. As a PALMS volunteer, our role is not to teach people to be like us. Our role is to develop the strengths and weaknesses that already exist in the community. This is especially pertinent to female empowerment. For Timor-Leste, an independent country only 18 years old, female empowerment is still in its infancy. I am honoured to work with the Feto Forti of CLC. They are enacting real change in the community. As someone from a completely different culture, it’s been a rewarding and difficult learning curve. Balibo has taught me that the goal of female empowerment is to benefit women on a real level. This means setting aside your ego, and focusing on your goal. I am honoured to work with Ella, Sidonia, Rofina, and Michele.

Michele Rankin began working with the staff of the Balibo 5 Community Learning Centre in 2016 and 2017 as an Institutional Development Mentor and returned in 2019 to continue this work. You can support the mentoring of these Feto Forti by becoming a regular donor to this project or making a one-off donation.