The entrance to Plan International in Timor-Leste
Shane Harrison volunteered as a Gender Officer at Plan International Timor Leste
Almost 60 years ago the feminist movement entered the broader public conscious and promised a new order for social structures. From this moment on, gender equality, and indeed class, sexuality, and race, became fundamental to the social justice and development movements. Today, gender has truly gone 'mainstream', with the international community recognising the negative repercussions of inequality and a definitive need to address gender concerns in all facets of development practice.
Timor Leste is not immune from this. Development practitioners and local policy-makers have long since realised that if Timor Leste is to improve on its current Human Development Index ranking of 128 of 187, investing in women and girls is essential. There remain numerous barriers to progress, with girls' education remaining under-prioritised, gender-based and domestic violence in many ways normalised, and women frequently side-lined in local decision-making processes.
Challenging this situation means approaching development interventions in a way which is sensitive to the differing way in which poverty and marginalisation is experienced by women as women, and men as men. This approach, commonly known as 'gender mainstreaming', seeks to ensure that gender sensitivity is integral to the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation, of all development policies and programs.
As Gender Officer at Plan International I support local development programming to do exactly this - take into account, and positively affect, relations between men and women, boys and girls. To date, this has seen me assist in the design of child protection, youth empowerment, and early childhood programs, co-create country-wide gender strategies, and most importantly provide ongoing mentoring and support on gender concepts and mainstreaming to my local colleagues. In practice however, this is often inherently complex. Gender equality as a concept is difficult to convey and teach, local staff have difficulty translating gender knowledge into practice 'on the ground', and culture is such a powerful influence in peoples' everyday lives that those who step outside the 'gender box' can face adverse reactions from their respective communities. But we are witnessing change.
Shane prior to the beginning of the Tour de Timor, a five day mountain bike stage race he used to raise the profile of Plan and the work it is doing in Timor-Leste. From left: Shane, Plan staff and the Australian Ambassador to Timor-Leste and his wife
I actively champion the positive engagement of men in gender and development programming as a means to achieve gender equality. Promoting better fatherhood practices, for example, could significantly improve gender-relations in Timor, with research indicating that positive and active fatherhood practices can lead to stronger husband-wife relations, fathers practising healthier lifestyles, greater father-child involvement, less household violence, and increased partner support. Consequently, I have authored and circulated a discussion paper on the case for involved fatherhood and in the months to come will be looking to build partnerships with other organisations and promote the active involvement of fathers in parenting or health programs.
The rewards of my experience in Timor Leste have been immense. The social relationships I have built, especially with my Timorese counterpart, are invaluable. As we roll out Plan International's new women's participation program, celebrate International Day of the Girl and continue to champion child-centred community development, I hope that I can in some small way contribute to improving the situation for women and girls in Timor Leste.