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FEATURE STORY March 4, 2019

Thinking Equal in Timor-Leste: Gabi’s Path in Development


On International Women’s Day 2019, we are sharing stories of women doing inspiring work across East Asia and Pacific. Whether in the business world, advocacy, media or countless other sectors, their contributions highlight the transformative power of women in the region. Gabriela Leite Soares was the first woman in Timor-Leste to graduate from an Ivy League University; she founded TEDx in Dili and works in development.

Tell us about yourself: 

I’ve been working in international development with a focus on public health and gender equality. 

I just finished a stint with UNICEF Headquarters in New York, working with the Gender Section.  Currently, I’m working as a consultant for several organizations such as the World Health Organization, Marie Stopes International, and the Economist Intelligence Unit. 

I am passionate about adolescent health, human rights, and activism. I find myself always thinking: “what can I do to address this pressing issue in my community?” It’s exhilarating to connect with people and to contribute to positive change, no matter how small. This is the reason why I started TEDxDili in 2014. 

For me, it’s important to be aware of what's happening around me, and as a member of my community, to be aware of our history, and think about ways that I can be free of ignorance, empathetic, and contribute to positive change.  

What inspires you to get up in the morning? What drives you?

“What am I going to learn today?” is something that I think of when I start my day. We never stop learning. 

When I was in high school, my mom, who is a teacher, always made popsicles that I sold in our small kiosk at home. Even at the age of 17 I was quite entrepreneurial, so I offered to take them to school and sell them there. Every morning I would take a big thermos and rode on a microlet (mini bus) to school. I usually stayed in class during recess because the boys in my class thought it would be fun to “steal” the popsicles. Perhaps they didn’t know that I used the money to help pay for my tuition. I worked so hard because I have always believed that education could help me and my family. 

In turn, I also have an army of family and close friends whose support helped me to be where I am today. I believe that I have a responsibility to be a positive role model for my younger sisters, my nephews, and my niece. And the best way that I can show my gratitude to those who have supported me is by doing my best.

Nothing is impossible if you work hard. 

What set you on this path?

When I was in third grade my mom introduced me to a children’s magazine called Bobo. It was full of both fiction and non-fiction stories, puzzles, and school exercises. That magazine allowed me to dream of traveling to places, it introduced me to a love for reading, and most importantly it triggered a curiosity about the world. I would always ask a lot of “whys” to my family and friends. I bet it was annoying.

In 2003 when I was working for an international agency, a colleague invited me to go to a restaurant to eat spaghetti. That was my very first time eating spaghetti! I didn’t want to embarrass myself or cause a scene. So I looked up on the internet about how to eat spaghetti. After that lunch my colleague praised me on my ability to use the fork correctly when eating the spaghetti. Little did she know that it was so stressful for me because I was concentrating on the proper etiquette, and so I barely enjoyed my very first time eating spaghetti! Though table manners are important, one should not be judged for not being able to masterfully use a utensil to eat a foreign dish.

What I’m trying to say is that even highly educated people can be judgmental and biased. For me, it’s not enough to have a good job or to earn a high salary. It’s crucial for me to continue be curious and to always challenge my biases.

What advice do you have for young women who want to take a similar path?

Believe in yourself, don’t allow anyone to cause you to doubt yourself, and always be kind to yourself.

Do you have a favorite quote or saying?

One of my favorite authors, James Baldwin, once wrote that: “It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.”

What are the biggest issues in Timor-Leste right now and how can they be addressed?

In key sectors such as education, health care, nutrition and water, and sanitation and hygiene—we see the absence of quality. In education, especially public schools, the ratio between teachers and students remains high, which consequently affects the learning environment in a classroom. The quality of teaching remains a concern. In health care, we have a large number of health providers; however, quality of services remains poor. Malnutrition is alarmingly high. And in many places around the country access to clean water and adequate sanitation remains scarce. Yet the Government’s annual spending on these key sectors is very low, and after almost 17 years of our independence our country’s dependence on oil remains acutely high.

We need to strive for increased access concurrently with quality. It’s not enough to fill classrooms with teachers and health facilities with health providers. Policies should be made using well-researched evidence. Despite our learning curve as a young nation, we should regularly monitor and evaluate programs for progress and results. This can help us to learn and understand better about not only what works and what has not worked, but why. This will also help us hold our leaders and policymakers accountable.

Where do you see Timor-Leste in 25 years?

I believe there will be decreased dependence on oil and consumption of processed foods. Timorese in 25 years will become more conscious about nutrition—our consumption of processed foods (instant noodles and canned foods) decreases; and we will have no choice but to strengthen our non-oil industry e.g. coffee, horticulture, and tourism.

What change would you like to see that could bring greater equality in Timor-Leste?

Improving the quality of education in public schools is fundamental. However, schools should focus on both academic and emotional intelligence. At present, those with money send their kids to private or international schools. Whereas the majority of Timorese send their kids to public schools. Students then compete for limited scholarships to study overseas, and the structural imbalances in our society skew the results, ossifying the imbalances. Addressing the quality of education in public schools will help to close this socio-economic gap.

If you could use one word to describe women in East Asia Pacific what would it be?




The views expressed  in this article do not necessarily represent the views of the World Bank Group and its employees.