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FEATURE STORY March 8, 2020

Breaking Barriers in Timor-Leste: Berta Antonieta


For International Women’s Day 2020, we’re getting to know the pioneering women across East Asia Pacific who are breaking barriers and creating change for the decade ahead. Berta Antonieta is a proud young activist from Timor-Leste who started a vocal Feminist group and works for an economic think tank that promotes sustainable, people-focused policies. Her group’s approach and determination contributed to a lasting change in family planning policy in Timor-Leste.

A little bit about myself

I am from Betano, Manufahi on the remote south coast of Timor-Leste. I grew up in a large working-class family, with 6 siblings and  learned the art of hard work. If you don’t work, then there is no food.  I also learned how to look after my younger siblings while my parents went to work, it taught me to be responsible from a young age.

In high school I was elected school president and was the top student in my year. I felt that my parents’ struggle and sacrifice had begun to pay off  as I was selected for a scholarship to study in Hong Kong for 2 years. I completed a double major  in Economics and International Studies in the United States.  After graduation, I went to New York to be an intern for the East Timor Activist Network for 4 months and worked in Dili as an Economic and Political officer.

I joined La’o Hamutuk (walk together) in 2018. It is Timor-Leste’s main ‘think-tank’ that monitors and analyses government policies. I research, write and speak on a broad range of issues. My work has included: analyzing the economy, including the State Budget; researching corruption and human rights; briefing international agencies, journalists and consultants on the political and economic context of Timor-Leste; and lobbying decision makers to implement more sustainable, people-focused policies.

Playing soccer and climbing mango trees: growing up as a feminist in Timor-Leste

Growing up, my parents struggled to feed 6 children with their limited income. Their priority was to send my brothers to good schools.

As a girl I had to fight to be sent to a good school and had to wake up early each morning to help my mother sell fried banana and vegetables in order to earn my own school fees. I also like to read a lot, we didn’t have books in the house, so I always spent time in the school library to read any children’s book that I could find. I also liked to play soccer and climb mango trees with my brothers even when I was told not to. I was told that a ‘well-behaved girl’ shouldn’t play soccer and climb mango trees with boys – but that didn’t stop me.

Since I was a child, I thought that women and men should be given equal opportunities. If my parents asked me to wash the dishes, I would always demand them to treat my brothers the same. If he can play soccer, I want to play soccer too, if he is sent to a good school, I want to go to a good school too. My mother said I am the stubborn one, and whenever I set my goal on something, I’ll work very hard to reach that goal.

Grupu Feminista / Feminist Group

My inspiration to start a feminist group in 2017 came from the need to be free as a woman. Men and women should be given the same opportunity, it’s not about equality, it’s equity.

Women need to feel safe and be free to walk in the street. Women shouldn’t hold back and not have a say in cultural meetings. Women shouldn’t only be in the kitchen. Women should have rights over their own body. Women (as well as men) should be freed from exploitation in work places, and unpaid household and care work should be shared equally between the sexes  With all these realizations that women should be free from oppression, I formed a group of outspoken feminists who are asserting their right to self-determination in the face of strong social pressures.

Grupu Feminista is a network of feminists who advocate for equity in Timor-Leste. I identified specific individuals who I knew were passionate about gender equity, and approached them to seek their support. I was able to establish a critical mass of members to start the group. As a result, Grupu Feminista has organized several large public events, working together with other groups in the movement for social change in Timor-Leste.

One of our accomplishments was our response to the draft Family Planning Policy that would have prevented unmarried youth from accessing contraception. I convened members of the group and coordinated the writing of a petition and letters to the Prime Minister’s Office calling for the policy to be reviewed and revised. These letters were signed by influential public figures and representatives from local and international organizations. Due to our swift action and approach, we succeeded in having the family planning policy shelved. Our response received international media attention and the success of the campaign has helped contribute to lasting change in the debate on family planning in Timor-Leste.

Embrace your leadership skills – the world needs it

Women have historically played many leadership roles in communities, families and in many nations. But most of this has been lost over the last centuries due to the political and economic transformations and inequalities which have emerged as a result of colonialism, war and uneven development.

My advice is for young women to embrace your leadership qualities, as it’s very important for more women to be involved in the fight for social change and economic justice - the world needs it. And also for young men to be confortable when women are in charge, and to provide support when needed. Critical thinking and strong education is essential for these struggles, so it’s important to read as much as possible so that we know what we are talking about. You don’t have to attend the best school to be knowledgeable. Read and then question everything you have read. Learn and re-learn. And most importantly never bend your self to please the crowd. Be authentic.

Access to quality Education and healthcare are the keys to a sustainable Future

Timor-Leste is highly dependent on oil and we have less than 20 years to find other sources of income before the oil runs out.

If the government has the willingness to invest in its people, to provide access to quality, free education and healthcare, essential infrastructure and inclusive, equal and democratic institutions, then in the future we could live healthily, sustainably and equitably by developing and protecting our local agriculture, natural resources and eco-tourism.

In order to achieve this, we need much more participation from young people, especially girls and young women, and I am hopeful that the young people right now will be the driving force of this nation’s development into a prosperous, peaceful and sustainable society.



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