Challenging gender roles in Timor-Leste, Rosa is the Chief of the Lualisa Water User Group

A woman is filling water containers at a tap outdoors, she is wearing a mask

Mana Rosa Soares, Chief of the Lualisa Water User Group (Joanico Marques/CARE International in Timor-Leste (2020)


The value of women is infinite – women bear the brunt of problems, ranging from poverty to health, to climate change, but they also possess the capabilities, knowledge and talents to solve these problems. Women are changemakers, innovators and leaders and their tremendous efforts around the world are shaping a more equal future and supporting COVID-19 response and recovery.


An important part of empowering women to be leaders in their community, is challenging traditional gender roles - this is not always easy or straightforward, but gradually, change is happening, and this is something Rosa Soares, in Maubara, Likisa can attest to.


In Timor-Leste, WaterAid and CARE are working with communities through their Water for Women project, Beyond Inclusion: realising gender transformational change and sustainable wash systems to address the multiple dimensions of inequality in access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services.


With support from the Australian Government, their work is supporting women like Rosa to take the lead, but also ensuring that no harm is done by engaging the whole community to ensure diverse voices are heard and that support is there for women to lead. One way in which they are achieving this is through Social Analysis and Action (SAA) sessions with Water User Groups (GMFs).


SAA is a tool to reflect with communities on how they can take a lead in transforming themselves to challenge gender and social norms. During the reflection, the facilitator leads discussion and activities to understand physical characteristics of women and men as well as a session on gender activities, which reflects on accepted and unaccepted norms for men and women in society.


As part of this session, 49 year old Rosa reflected on the challenges to achieve sharing of roles in the household and how she learned how to share roles and responsibilities within the household to balance her responsibilities as GMF Chief.


These norms may be difficult to change, as Rosa reflected, "men monopolise all the decision-making at home in all aspects... sometimes it's open for discussion between wife and husband, but the final decision is always up to the man." Rosa also noted that this is also something that is often affirmed by women, showing how entrenched these norms are.


Challenging norms is something that WaterAid and CARE anticipated. Through Water for Women, gender and social inclusion is a core focus and all projects are delivering WASH through a GSI lens. The team knew that to increase women leaders in their project communities, they would have to start with acceptance from the wider community, particularly men. This is what the SAA sessions are designed to encourage.


“I learnt specific roles such as equal sharing of roles in the household between men and women and to promote women’s leadership in decision making including leading the family and in the community”

- Rosa


Rosa has drawn on her experience and lessons as Chief of the Water User Group in these sessions and how it has influenced her day-to-day life, “this training is important as it encourages us as women to be a leader in the community... women's time should not just be spent at home, but also in the community to participate in different activities, to develop herself to be a leader. It's difficult but we look to challenge slowly and to overcome our social norms which still impede the process”.


"In my role, I plan and mobilise the community to do public cleaning around water sources, fixing problems with pipes, and facilitate community meetings about their contribution through a monthly fee to maintain the water system. I often participate in others meetings representing GMF both at my own suco (Village) and aldeia (community)”, she says.


Rosa's work is contributing greatly to WASH improvements and maintenance, which has an important impact on the health and wellbeing of her community now and into the future. At the same time, Rosa is also building her confidence as a leader in her community while also challenging social norms. This takes us beyond inclusive WASH to realising transformational change - a change in attitudes, a shift in social norms, a way of inspiring other young women and girls to lead and eventually, a more equal and equitable world.


That is something we must all strive for and it starts with women like Rosa.

The value of women is infinite – women bear the brunt of problems, ranging from poverty to health, to climate change, but they also possess the capabilities, knowledge and talents to solve these problems. That is why gender and social inclusion is embedded across Australia’s development programs.


For International Women's Day and World Water Day, we are celebrating the value of women and the value of water. Both are critical to building healthy and climate-resilient communities. 


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