Will the appointment of the first female President of Parliament promote the role of women in the security sector?

Will the appointment of the first female President of Parliament promote the role of women in the security sector? post thumbnail image

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No sooner was Maria Fernanda Lay appointed as President of Parliament than she asserted that all public administration appointments must proceed on the basis of merit, as opposed to social connection. “We can’t bring people in ‘from under the table'”, insists Lay. “If we want the public administration to function well, we have to recruit people with merit, really intelligent people”. (‘Fernanda Lay: Rekrutamentu Labele Husi Meza Okos’, Independiente, July 7, p. 4).

Fernanda Lay’s words had an unstated personal significance, since her own appointment to the Presidency of Parliament serves––or appears to serve––as an example of the meritocracy that is very often lacking in Timor-Leste. It is precisely this meritocratic weakness that would typically see a man appointed to such a prestigious political position (and not necessarily the most competent man at that). That Fernanda Lay is a woman could suggest that this new government took notice of her manifest talents, knowledge and experience.

Fernanda Lay’s appointment is doubtlessly symbolic. To have a woman assume the second-most powerful office in the country (after the President of the Republic) is to send a message to all Timorese that women are equally capable and deserving of high office; it is to send a message that women can, should and do assume positions of utmost responsibility. Fernanda Lay’s appointment therefore stands as a symbol of the respect that all women deserve, and it reminds the nation that all women must have a voice and must be listened to. Discrimination––not just against women but also against the different gender identities and people who are physically and mentally differently-abled––will not be tolerated.

Historically and culturally, Timorese women have always played key roles: female queens––liurai-feto––were not so uncommon during Portuguese colonial times, for example. During the occupation years (1975–99), women played critically important roles in the resistance, although their magnificent contribution is often diminished by attributing the ‘heroism’ to men. Since independence, women have gained increased representation in both parliament and the public service, and that is surely a salutary development.

And yet, Fundasaun Mahein suspects that women placed in high positions might sometimes be ‘just for show’. Perhaps, their appointment is simply to meet a quota for female representation in parliament or to pretend to satisfy the modern demand for gender equality. We are yet to determine how much of Fernanda Lay’s ascension to President of Parliament is for mere appearances. To what extent will she simply follow the dictates and policies of the predominantly male leaders around her, and to what extent will she follow her own initiative, including a genuine drive for gender equality?

Fundasaun Mahein hopes that Fernanda Lay will become a forceful female voice in parliament and across Timorese society, particularly as she bears the great responsibility  in the Supreme  Council for Defence and Security (Konsellu Superior Defeza no Seguransa). On behalf of the Timorese people, we urge Fernanda Lay to use her powers wisely and courageously by addressing key issues which, directly or indirectly, perpetuate and exacerbate crime, violence and, indeed, extreme gender disparities: entrenched poverty, unemployment, economic stagnation, inadequate social services, government corruption, inequality and discrimination. Fundasaun Mahein remains cautiously optimistic that Fernanda Lay will bring to politics something of the classical ‘female’ and often ‘traditional cultural’ qualities of respect, nurturing, gracefulness, empathy, fairness and honesty.

Just as Fernanda Lay has asserted that “appointments must proceed on the basis of merit, as opposed to social connection”, Fundasaun Mahein sees fit to add: The appointment of women to public roles must not be based simply on a desire to parade an ultimately fatuous sensitivity to gender. Rather, the appointment of women to public office must proceed on the basis of merit, which includes a true commitment to addressing gender discrimination. Fundasaun Mahein hopes that Fernanda Lay’s appointment will help to normalise high office for women. Fundasaun Mahein looks forward to a future where women assume such prominent roles as PNTL commando, Minister of the Interior or Minister of Defence and any other role as strategic positions in Timor-Leste.


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