by Sarah Burr
Women are incredibly important to agriculture all over the world. In Timor Leste, women in mountainous areas (where 70 per cent of the Timorese population lives) carry out most farm activities including taking care of animals and cultivation of rain-fed crops such as sweet potato, cassava and fruit. Timorese women increasingly took on farm work during conflict as men left towns and villages to fight. Post-conflict, women have continued this work due to men returning from war suffering physical and mental injury. This farm workload is on top of women’s other duties such as child-rearing, housework, caring for elders, and community responsibilities.
Unlike in Australia, most farm products in Timor Leste are consumed by the farmer and their family, rather than sold to markets and other consumers. As such, cooking home-grown food is very important, but also limited by availability and seasonality. Subsistence farming in this way can lead to the malnutrition of women and their families, despite best efforts to raise crops and animals through drought, flood, pestilence, and many other testing scenarios. Farm work also demands much time and energy, limiting the amount of time and attention women could lend to profit-making or up-skilling activities. Income-generating crops such as maize, coffee and rice are often grown on larger plots and are not a feature of Timorese home gardens. Imported food is often expensive or low in nutritional value, so is not a suitable substitute.
The Timor Leste Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries are aware of the challenges subsistence farming poses for rural women and their families, and have welcomed rural extension centres, microfinance investment for rural women’s groups, nutrition education, cooking instruction, and other home or community farm project initiatives to support food production and food security in Timor Leste.
With women in rural areas of Timor Leste focused on growing crops for family consumption, there is little opportunity for women in agriculture to accumulate savings or to access banking and finance. Since improved political stability was achieved around 2007, some women in agriculture in Timor Leste have formed women’s groups to establish small agricultural businesses through microfinance. Women engaged in these microfinance projects have been able to access accounting and literacy programs, and have also learnt about processing and quality control, allowing for income generation and the organisation of trade. Other projects have focused on improving crop cultivation and nutrition and cooking education to enhance food security and reduce malnutrition in women and children. Income from farming is often spent on education and healthcare for children, although money for ceremonies and for buying imported crops such as maize and rice during poor seasons also occurs. Although this economic empowerment is very exciting, in some areas it is not possible due to societal structures requiring women to seek their husband’s permission to be involved in such groups, and decision-making being exclusive to male leaders such as chiefs.
In 2015, the government of Timor Leste recognised the contribution of women in agriculture by celebrating World Food Day and International Rural Women’s Day in Maubisse. Three days were dedicated to promoting rural women’s’ role in strengthening the Timor Leste economy, food security, and nutrition. Continued recognition and support of women for performing this important role in Timor Leste is essential.
Sarah visited Timor Leste as a tourist in October 2015 and loved every minute of it. She has a Master of Agribusiness from the University of Melbourne and thoroughly enjoyed discussing women’s issues and agriculture in Timor Leste with women from the YWCA Timor Leste in Dili, and both international and Timorese agriculture project officers and students on Atauro Island.