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Sunrise LNG in Timor-Leste: Dreams, Realities and Challenges

A Report by La’o Hamutuk
Timor-Leste Institute for Reconstruction Monitoring and Analysis

February 2008

Chapter 7. Effects on Women

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Contents of this file

Women in Timor-Leste, like women everywhere, fill important roles in the family, society and nation building. In countries like Timor-Leste, women often have to work hard to sustain their families. During the resistance, their involvement in the long struggle for national liberation showed great courage, and today they have to struggle for their own economic and political liberation.

Article 17 of the Timor-Leste Constitution states that women and men shall have the same rights and duties in all areas of life: family, cultural, social, political and economic. This is to guarantee women’s rights in economic activities, their political, social and cultural rights, and it also means that every person is entitled to equal protection of their human rights and security.

The women we interviewed during our field visits stressed how important development is for this country. They have high expectations that bringing the LNG plant to Timor-Leste, especially to their communities, will benefit them economically. They don’t yet know the other ways their lives will be affected by the LNG plant or by oil and gas development. They described how the expect the plant to increase their families’ incomes by selling their agriculture products and handicrafts, renting places for foreigners to stay, and working with the company or in support facilities. However, they need information about other impacts from the processes of construction and operation, and what the government and the companies will do to minimize risks and enable women to participate fully.

This part of this report will describe how the LNG development could impact negatively on women’s lives in Timor-Leste, especially in the area of development, unless the government and companies give this serious consideration. In many natural-resource-rich countries, women and children suffer from mining and petroleum operations because the government and companies give less attention to their needs and don’t respect the rights of women and others who are powerless and voiceless.

In this context, we will discuss some social problems which could affect women’s lives if an LNG plant is built, and will offer some proposals about actions the government and the companies can take to prevent these problems from arising.

Land rights and displacement of women

In Timor-Leste, most land in rural areas is still considered traditional land because few people have legal documents to prove formal ownership. One government official told us that if the government needs land to build a project for the national interest, then local people should move to allow this to happen [19]; and most people we interviewed agreed.

Current ideas for land compensation would pay more to rich people than to poor ones. For instance, if people have built an expensive house, they will receive more than those whose house is made from local materials. In Timor-Leste’s situation, many people’s houses are made from grass, often rebuilt every few years – but the land is still their home. If land is primarily used for agriculture, it is considered less valuable than land with buildings on it, even if it is their only source of income. Compensation based on market value is problematic as land in remote rural areas often has a low market value (nobody with money is interested in it), even though it is essential to the lives of people who live there.

Timor-Leste’s predominant patrilineal land tenure system discriminates against women (although in a few communities like Manatuto, women also can inherit land along with their brothers). Consequently, women’s access to land rights is usually limited and conditional. Conversely, in the few areas where a matrilineal system operates, men have limited and conditional access to land. [20] Therefore, in most cases, women do not participate in decisions on selling land nor benefit from compensation for land sales. As Timor-Leste does not yet have a formal law on restitution and hence there is no mechanism for legal recourse, women could be deprived of participation in compensation for land sold to make way for the LNG facility.

Traditionally, one of the responsibilities of women is to collect clean water for cooking, drinking, washing and other purposes. However, a large construction project or facility like an LNG Plant could deprive communities of their sources of water, or could use a lot of water, draining streams and water table and forcing women to walk further to collect water.

Many women still depend on natural products for health care because they cannot access the hospital, so they rely on local materials for traditional medicine. People’s economic survival depends on farming.

If a large construction project is built, it may destroy the local environment, and women may lose their sources of medicine, food and income. If they are relocated, it will be difficult for women to adapt and survive. Women in many resource-rich countries have suffered from this situation. For instance, in India mining has displaced women and medicinal plants are lost due to forest destruction, leaving women without a health support system. Often the women are too poor to buy medical services and medicines (if available), but the company will not pay for their medical expenses. [50]

It is possible to do development well, if the developers take great efforts to make sure the project will benefit the local people and the country. If the LNG Plant is built in Timor-Leste, the government should guarantee displaced people’s rights, requiring the companies to pay sufficient compensation to protect the community, and to pay particular attention to possible impact on women and children who live in the area of the facility.

Women and economic activities

Since the majority of Timor-Leste’s population is women, they play very important roles in the family and society. Because our infrastructure is not developed, women have to walk far carrying their produce to sell it for very low prices in the market. During the rainy season, the products often become wet and cannot be sold. Women usually have to walk for long distances to gather firewood or fetch water. They spend a large portion of each day doing this work, so they don’t have much time or opportunity to develop their capacity for other kinds of work and roles in society. Women hope that if the LNG plant is built in their area, they will benefit from new or improved facilities such as roads, bridges and public transport.

As discussed in Chapter 5, the LNG facility could improve the infrastructure in Timor-Leste which will help women to participate in economic activities. However, women will need training, micro credit and other support to benefit from economic activities made possible by an LNG project. There should be a mechanism to guarantee that women will benefit from the construction and the development.

Women’s voices

Timor-Leste’s has been independent since May 2002, and our Constitution guarantees women’s right to participate in politics. Timor-Leste has more women political leaders — government officials and members of Parliament — than most other developing countries. However, traditionally women’s political status remains very weak, and often depends on their husband, father and brothers. Especially in rural areas where the LNG plant will be built, women are often excluded from decisions which will have major effects on their lives. Many rural women have very low educational levels; most of them are illiterate. This is because parents with limited resources often give lower priority for girls to attend school, discrimination reinforced by the strong traditional structure and patriarchal system. We are concerned that women may not be effectively involved in debates about how the LNG project will relate to the community, and that they will not receive adequate benefits – essential compensation, education and health care facilities. In Timor-Leste’s patriarchal system, consultation usually involves only men. If women do participate, it is often just to prepare food for the men who will negotiate for the companies and government. Women are often excluded from the process, or put in support roles, because the men consider them to have low education, limited knowledge and little courage.

For example, the World Bank and the Timor-Leste Ministry of Natural Resources, Mineral and Energy Policy are developing a Resettlement Policy Framework for the Gas Seep Harvesting Project planned for Aliambata. [83] The Framework says that the project will pay particular attention to the needs of vulnerable groups among those who will be displaced, especially those below the poverty line, the elderly, women, children, and ethnic minorities. However, the consultation process in the area was very limited. There was only one woman among the people selected to speak, and even she does not live in the area of the project. (The Resettlement Policy Framework for the Aliambata Gas Seep Harvesting Project only applies to that project, but it gives an indication of how future processes for other gas-related projects might be undertaken.)

To break this pattern, the government and company must involve women in the processes of community consultation and negotiation and bargaining, while providing sufficient information for the women to contribute effectively to these important stages. We believe that women’s participation is essential because only they possess certain information and priorities; they must be empowered and given a critical role. Since men often dominate in mixed groups, we encourage government to hold separate consultations with women only, so that they have the chance to talk to government directly. The information thus gained could help allocate funds or priorities to provide education and otherwise enable women and girls to participate more fully in such processes.

Health care

In many resource rich-countries, communities are tremendously damaged by oil and gas exploitation in their environment. The average woman in Timor-Leste will have seven or eight children, and health is a critical issue for them.

Box 23. An indigenous woman from the Ecuadorian Amazon living close to an oil exploitation area:
“Our environment and farmland were contaminated by oil, we can’t use the land for farming anymore. My sister was dying because of cancer, no sufficient medical facility was available, and we did not have enough money to go to the hospital. Our children could not study or sleep because of the noise from the company every day and night. We are women; we have to take care of the children.” [62]

Timor-Leste does not have enough health facilities, especially in rural areas and for people who are too poor to purchase medical treatment. As we discuss in Chapter 3, an LNG plant is a large industrial facility that operates in a coastal environment. Construction and operation will have major impacts, including some which are not anticipated. Major disruption or contamination of air quality, noise, seas, rivers, soil and ground water often accompany such facilities.

Most people in rural Timor-Leste earn their livelihoods from farming. The water which they use for cooking and drinking comes directly from the ground. Their domestic animals usually eat grass from the area where they live and drink the water from a nearby stream. If the LNG plant is built in Timor-Leste, and if it releases toxic pollutants by low-level leakage, “normal” emissions, or accident, it could cause long-term poisoning of farmland or water. This would be devastating for the entire community which depends on land and water; their animals will die from drinking contaminated water, and their crops will be inedible. Contamination is especially dangerous for pregnant women and children, who are the most vulnerable. If they can’t get clean water for drinking and cooking, they will suffer many diseases.

These situations are very burdensome for women, and this burden affects the entire society. The government and companies must find ways to prevent this from happening in our country. We should learn from other countries’ experiences and manage our natural resources properly for the well-being of all people: women, men and children.

Prostitution, trafficking and domestic violence

Prostitution is not accepted by Timorese society, and women are always the victims. However, Timorese men sometimes use prostitutes, taking advantage of women who need money and have fewer opportunities for legitimate jobs than men do. Women and girls become involved in prostitution for many reasons, including economic need, as well as the social disruption and disparities of wealth inherent when different cultures come together. During construction and operation of the LNG plant, hundreds of foreign workers, mostly men, will come to our communities. This could lead to prostitution, as highly-paid men far from home seek sexual gratification while impoverished local women, with their lives disrupted by the plant, accept their money in return for sexual favors. Prostitution will also increase HIV/AIDS in the community, and prostitutes are most likely to suffer from this illness. (According to Timor-Leste Vice Minister for Health Madalena Hanjam in October 2007, 43 Timor-Leste people are known to have been infected with HIV/AIDS, of whom 11 have died.)

Currently, there are also some problems with trafficking of women and children in Timor-Leste. We are concerned that if the LNG plant is built in Timor-Leste, the resulting social disruption and influx of foreigners on short-term contracts could lead to increases in trafficking of women and children.

Domestic violence is high in Timor-Leste, although society usually considers domestic violence to be a family problem. Women and children are the most common victims. Because men are considered the heads of the family, with power and responsibility, they often hit their wives, children and other family members when they get drunk. The construction of an LNG Plant in Timor-Leste could also increase domestic violence, because some men will have opportunities for jobs, interacting with foreign workers who may bring drugs and alcohol. Other Timorese men, frustrated that they cannot get a job with the company, could vent their anger on their families. If the plant requires families to relocate or change their way of living, domestic violence also will worsen because of the increased stress.

Women and children are usually told to be silent when they experience domestic violence. If they bring it up, they do not get much support from their community, or even their families. Many women in rural areas use traditional methods to deal with domestic violence and sexual violence, even though these are crimes, and these traditional processes often produce unsatisfactory results for the women victims. [63, pages 59 and 66] The traditional justice mechanism used by most communities to deal with their conflict is called “Tesi Lia”/resolving problems, and the traditional leader who serves as an arbitrator is called “Lia Nain.”

We recommend that the government establish a legal mechanism to assist women in rural areas where the LNG Plant will be built to access justice, as well as a process for alternative dispute resolution which can provide a just solution in domestic violence cases. In addition, gender equality should be integrated into curricula, the law on domestic violence should be approved, and men should be educated through seminars and training.

Women’s access to justice

When rights are violated or disputes arise, women and other disenfranchised people rely on the court system to protect their interests against powerful forces. But women often cannot get adequate legal assistance or even information about their rights and legal processes. Against a company of a government, women are sometimes afraid to bring a legal case because they feel powerless. Often, they cannot afford to hire legal counsel or even to travel to the court. In many cases, the only support for victims of crimes against women are women’s organizations, whose female staff may provide legal assistance to some vulnerable women. Therefore, the larger (male) community assumes that only women need to support women, and most women do not receive the information they need.

Cases related to women are often not brought to the court, but dealt with within their families. According to International Rescue Committee research on gender based violence, only 3% of women ask the police for assistance, 9% try to forget the problem, 32% resolve it within the family, 51% of women felt that the best way to cope was with support from their family and 5% went to traditional justice. [99, page 13]

Even when people decide to go to the police or court, the judicial system process is very slow. According to the Judicial System Monitoring Program which monitored Dili District Court for two months during 2004, 55% of the scheduled criminal hearings were related to women (as victims, no women were perpetrators), and most of them were for sexual violence. Only 16% of these hearings actually took place, and the court failed to deliver any decisions. None of the domestic violence cases reported to the Vulnerable Persons Unit during that time were scheduled for court hearings, and there was no significant progress in other cases involving women victims. [40, page 4]

Timor-Leste has only four district courts, which often are not functional. The LNG plant will be quite far from any of the courts, making it difficult for women to travel there. The judicial system in Timor-Leste is still very weak. Therefore it is important to establish a legal mechanism – information and support center, as well as courts – near the project which can be accessed by women and others who are directly affected by the project.

Employment and training

While Timorese women are increasingly taking on traditionally male roles like earning money to support their families, men rarely reciprocate by taking on female roles, such as sharing child-care or domestic responsibilities. In addition, Timorese society has often prioritized educating men over women, and education itself often reinforces gender-based role models. Furthermore, many professions are seen as “male”, such as mechanics, carpentry and construction. This results in fewer women in technical trades or in higher-paying skilled positions.

Although policies, development programs, and training in Timor-Leste could be said to be largely gender neutral and in theory do not discriminate between the sexes, they are also gender blind, meaning that they do not sufficiently consider the specific circumstances of women. Simply allocating a set number of training places for women is not enough. To allow training and development programs to become more open to women’s participation they should be short and recurrent, because many women have little time to spare or are not accustomed to sitting in a classroom. They should be locally based, with child-care and transport available. Timing should also be flexible to fit in with women’s existing workloads.

Training for women and others could include trades and business management, which would help empower them to benefit directly and indirectly from the development of the LNG plant. In addition, child care, micro-credit, cooperatives, community organizations, and other mechanisms can provide necessary support for women and small businesses to receive a share of the benefits of LNG development.

Also, dissemination of information on training and business opportunities should be extended and take into account the specific problems women face. Furthermore, increased training opportunities need to be enhanced with increased access to small grants or loans. More targeted support by the government is needed. For example, the Women’s Business Council of the Philippines, set up by and for women, received significant initial support from the Philippine government Department of Trade and Industry. [108]

Within the LNG project, strong commitment from government and project developers can help overcome the obstacles facing women. From the beginning, extra attention should be given to training women for jobs in the project, in the local school and university systems, as well as in scholarships for study abroad and training given by the government or companies. Recruitment and hiring processes should make extra efforts to locate capable women, so that the promise of Timor-Leste Constitution Article 16 (equality and non-discrimination) and Article 17 (equality between women and men) can be fulfilled.

Continue to Chapter 8. International and Domestic Politics

Go back to Chapter 6. Impact on the Social and Natural Environment

Return to Table of Contents


The Timor-Leste Institute for Development Monitoring and Analysis (La’o Hamutuk)
Institutu Timor-Leste ba Analiza no Monitor ba Dezenvolvimentu
Rua D. Alberto Ricardo, Bebora, Dili, Timor-Leste
P.O. Box 340, Dili, Timor-Leste
Tel: +670-3321040 or +670-77234330
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