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December 11, 2023

Unleashing the Power of Women Entrepreneurs in Timor-Leste: Lessons Learned from the WAGE BEST Project

By: Emily Brown

In the island nation of Timor-Leste, female entrepreneurs account for 43% of micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs). But despite their active contributions to the economy, women throughout the country continue to face discrimination in their families, communities, and in Timorese society. Patriarchal gender norms prevail and rates of gender-based violence (GBV) are high, with more than a quarter of women and girls reporting having experienced some sort of physical or sexual violence within the previous year.

Recognizing these barriers, Grameen Foundation (Grameen) and the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative (ABA ROLI) implemented the Women and Girls Empowered (WAGE) Business and Social Support for Female Entrepreneurs in Timor-Leste (BEST) initiative. Launched in 2020, WAGE BEST aimed to address the intertwined social, economic, and regulatory challenges faced by women microentrepreneurs in starting, maintaining, and expanding businesses. The program built the capacity of five local organizations, including two microfinance institutions (MFIs), one credit union, and two women’s empowerment-focused civil society organizations (WE CSOs). By engaging these partners, the WAGE BEST project aimed to integrate their respective GBV and women’s economic empowerment (WEE) efforts to enable vulnerable women to succeed as entrepreneurs and provide women entrepreneurs with increased access to financial, entrepreneurial, and social support.

After three years of implementation and thousands of women reached, WAGE BEST concluded in January 2023. Reflecting on the project, several valuable lessons have emerged. These insights can offer guidance for future initiatives both in Timor-Leste and for WEE endeavors around the world.

GBV Mitigation and Integration with WEE

The WAGE team found that the order of activities mattered. For example, the Gender and Power Dynamics and GBV training was an important first step for the MFIs participating in the WAGE BEST project. It set the stage and invited personal reflection on the implications of power dynamics and equality issues, on GBV, and on the role of women in the family, especially as most of their clients are women. However, the team found that in the Timorese context, a more comprehensive gender and GBV package should be considered. Such a package would go beyond awareness-building and focus on support for the implementation of gender and GBV activities.  Recognizing this, the BEST team worked with WE CSOs to create materials that helped them better serve their women entrepreneur clients instead of simply being aware of the barriers they face.

Intrahousehold Dialogues

One of the most impactful of these adult learning materials was the intrahousehold dialogue (IHD) facilitation guide that allowed them to carry out the activity towards the end of project implementation. The IHDs brought together couples to discuss topics like the division of household tasks, household decision-making, and gender norms. They also provided a safe space for couples to develop action plans for improving their communication and actions after the dialogues ended. Participants noted that it is not common to bring up these kinds of issues and, for CSOs, it was the first time that they organized any such activities.

To increase acceptability and awareness of IHDs in target communities, BEST created a community entry plan that engaged local leaders to help select couples who were both willing to participate and open to discussing the topics of the dialogues. This strategy employed the team’s understanding that many villages in Timor-Leste are led by local male leaders. By involving them and securing their support, the project fostered buy-in and ownership of the project’s goals and demonstrated respect for the community’s traditions. Future projects may consider building on this work and training local leaders in select concepts first, to solicit feedback which can then be incorporated into the IHDs. Additional feedback following the IHD sessions would further improve the delivery and acceptability of the trainings within local communities.

WAGE noted the changes in IHD participants: “The couples were very excited to attend because they said that the information shared by the facilitators in each dialogue was very useful and beneficial to them, especially to their households. There are 5 topics for the intrahousehold dialogues, with one topic being discussed in each session, including introduction and welcome to the participants; division of household responsibilities; positive and negative gender norms; household decision-making; and harmony and household action plans. They all believe that these topics are crucial for them as couples.” And now that they’ve attended the IHD sessions, the project coordinator reported that “they wish to put [the information] into practice at home and frequently have family or couple conversations or dialogues before making decisions.”

After participating in the IHDs, couples had the chance to reflect on any changes they observed. One male participant noted that “in contrast to how we usually behave, we now sit down to discuss as a couple…We acknowledge that we used to constantly argue and get angry with one another, but this has taught us that our actions in the past—particularly mine as a husband—were improper and should be changed in order to prevent future occurrences. I can already sense the changes taking place in my family and in me.” His wife also shared that he now gets up early every morning to help with the cooking, dishes, laundry, and to prepare the children for school. Together, they are working towards improving their family’s future.

The couples who participated in the IHDs also requested more dialogues—more time to discuss the concepts introduced and additional dialogues to tackle new issues. In addition, the participants felt that more members of their community should be invited to be part of the IHDs. Doing so would mobilize greater support for gender equality and generate increased impact at both the community and household levels and identify new dialogue topics.

Our Impact

WAGE BEST has reached more than 6,000 women in five municipalities throughout Timor-Leste. The success of the project is best summed up in the words of Grameen’s project coordinator: “Women clients from financial institutions feel they are getting relevant information regarding business plans and financial literacy so that they can finally open and expand their business.” As they do so, they embrace their own power and become stronger in making decisions for themselves, for their businesses, and for their homes. He goes on to share that “Communication efforts with husbands are getting better, with the changes felt by the wives, husbands finally give moral support and women are increasingly respected and their voices are heard in the families and communities where they live.”

Published on December 12, 2023.

    *Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of the United States Government. 
    Women and Girls Empowered (WAGE) is a global consortium to advance the status of women and girls, led by the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative (ABA ROLI) in close partnership with the Center for International Private Enterprise, Grameen Foundation, and Search for Common Ground. WAGE works to strengthen the capacity of private sector organizations (PSOs) and civil society organizations (CSOs) in target countries to improve the prevention of and response to gender-based violence (GBV); advance the women, peace, and security (WPS) agenda; and support women’s economic empowerment (WEE). In this context, WAGE provides direct assistance to women and girls, including information, resources, and services they need to succeed as active and equal participants in the global economy. WAGE also engages in collaborative research and learning to build a body of evidence on relevant promising practices in these thematic areas. To account for the deeply interconnected nature of women’s and girls’ experiences, WAGE’s initiatives employ approaches that are highly collaborative, integrated, and inclusive. WAGE is funded by the U.S. Department of State Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues.

    The materials contained herein represent the opinions of the authors and editors and should not be construed to be those of either the American Bar Association unless adopted pursuant to the bylaws of the Association. Nothing contained herein is to be considered as the rendering of legal advice for specific cases, and readers are responsible for obtaining such advice from their own legal counsel. These materials and any forms and agreements herein are intended for educational and informational purposes only.