Stories from the Field: A New Year’s visit to Timor Leste

In the first week of 2023, Caritas Australia staff, our in-country team in Timor Leste, Bishop Umbers (Auxiliiary Bishop, Archdiocese of Sydney) and a delegation from the Archdiocese of Sydney travelled to Baucau and Maliana in Timor Leste to see some of the amazing programs being carried out in the region.  

The second largest city in Timor Leste, Baucau has a breezy, colourful and continental feel, a remnant of the Portuguese colonial influence, where palm tree-lined streets bustle with small vans and motorbikes. 

Caritas Australia staff (Timor Leste office), Fernando Pires, Bishop Umbers (Auxiliiary Bishop, Archdiocese of Sydney), a delegation from the Archdiocese of Sydney, a delegation from the Diocese of Maliana, Fr Lucio de Deus (Vicar General, Maliana Diocese) and Kirsty Robertson stand outside offices of the Diocese of Maliana. Photo: Nicole Chehine/Caritas Australia

However, beyond this peaceful surface, lies a deep undercurrent of underprivilege that affects large portions of the local community. Sadly, Baucau is not immune from the humanitarian challenges that much of the country faces. Poverty, unemployment, and gender-based violence (GBV) are some of the challenges Timor Leste faces today. This has only been compounded by the ripple effects of COVID-19 and recent unprecedented floods. 

The United Nations Development Program estimates that 30-50% of Timorese women suffer domestic abuse in their relationship at some point. Caritas Australia and the Archdiocese of Sydney had the honour of visiting one of the women’s shelters supported by Caritas Australia in partnership with Caritas Baucau. Kirsty Robertson, Chief Executive Officer of Caritas Australia, remarked: “it was both heartbreaking and inspiring to hear the stories of the women who seek refuge there - hoping for a new life of safety and peace.” 

Thanks to the generosity of our supporters, Caritas Australia works with 13 local partners in protection programs that promote the protection of vulnerable women and children in Timor Leste. These programs work to provide accommodation, specialist support, and support through savings and loans activities so that women can gain financial autonomy. 

Fernando Pires, Timor Leste’s country representative at Caritas Australia, explains his affinity for Caritas Australia comes from the unique relationship it takes with program work. 

It differs us from other international agencies in Timor Leste. One example is how we set up the women’s shelter in Baucau. The two women that run the shelter were part of Caritas Australia’s staff. After a couple of years, it became a local non-governmental organisation (NGO)... We have opened up another three women’s shelters using that same model.

Fernando Pires

A scalable modelling approach has also been applied to other programs in Timor Leste, such as the Sustainable Livelihoods Programs, which aims to strengthen agricultural knowledge and technical support for vulnerable rural communities. Visiting Caritas Maliosa, the Caritas Australia team and members of the Archdiocese of Sydney were able to see first-hand the efficacy of these programs. By engaging village committees and the local Catholic church, local farmers work on local irrigation management and are provided with education to help mitigate the effects of floods in future rainy seasons.  

Entering 2023, our partners in Timor Leste are still working to bring down the high rates of gender-based violence. You can learn more about what we are doing to help support those partners here:

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Additionally, you can read about how Caritas Australia fights global gender inequality here: Empowering women: fighting gender discrimination | Caritas Australia