The outbreak of COVID-19 has been devastating for Timor-Leste. It has overwhelmed the already weak health system, deepened poverty and pre-existing inequalities, exposing vulnerabilities in social, political and economic systems for women and girls in Timor-Leste.
Timor-Leste before and during COVID-19 at a glance
Timor-Leste is one of the world’s least developed countries and the poorest country in Southeast Asia. Poverty remains extremely pervasive in Timor-Leste, with the latest estimates indicating that 42% of Timorese live below the poverty line[i] and a further 40% are close to and at risk of falling below the line. Pairing with poverty, Timor-Leste is a patriarchal society with strong cultural, social and gender norms and practices that maintain gender inequality. Timor-Leste ranks at 111 out of 187 countries on the UN Gender Inequality Index (GII), indicating high levels of gender inequality and has one of the highest rates of gender-based violence (GBV).[ii]
Three years before the COVID-19 outbreak, Timor-Leste’s economy was already in recession due to political uncertainty and deadlock of the state budget.[iii] As a result, key important sectors such as health facilities, water and sanitation facilities, education and agriculture were all under-resourced. The COVID-19 outbreak added to the devastation in the country where the health system is already weak, according to both international and regional rankings,[iv] with low capacity to respond to infectious disease outbreaks. It was ranked second of 25 countries in the Asia Pacific in terms of risk for COVID-19 and classified as the most at risk for access to healthcare, existing health conditions and food insecurity.[v]
Misery does not end for Timor-Leste. During the outbreak, the country with the majority of its population dependent on subsistence farming, were faced with the incursion of the fall armyworm migratory pest affecting more than 2,880 hectares (ha) of maize resulting in significant production losses. In addition, the outbreaks of African swine fever causing the losses of 28% of the total pig population.[vi] Moreover, heavy rains across Timor-Leste from 29 March to 4 April 2021 associated with a tropical storm resulted in flash floods and landslides throughout the country affecting 33,835 households and 2,163 ha of agricultural areas across the country, as well as 44 reported fatalities.[vii] All of which reversed the progress made in the 20 years post-independent era and deepen poverty and pre-existing inequalities, exposing vulnerabilities in social, political and economic systems for women and girls in Timor-Leste.
Public health measures and its impact on women and girls
Considering under-resourced health facilities and a weak health system, the government of Timor-Leste took various measures to contain the spread of the virus since the first case of infection was confirmed on 21 March 2020. Immediately after confirmation of the first case, the Ministry of Education called for both private and public school closures on 22 March 2020. The call for a state of emergency was approved on the following day by the Council of Ministers,[viii] and on 27 March 2020 the President declared a State of Emergency through a decree. This state measure continues to be reviewed and renewed on a monthly basis, while the number of cases continues rising and has reached 9,361 registered cases with 24 reported deaths in July 2021.[ix] The specific measures introduced to halt the pandemic have affected the cycle of economic activity of the country in general,[x] and more importantly, have had the most impact on the economic sectors in which women tend to be overrepresented – sectors like gastronomy, hospitality, retail, care and domestic work. Hence, COVID-19 has heightened poverty and systemic pre-existing inequalities for women and girls.
COVID-19 deepens poverty and inequalities for women and girls in Timor-Leste
The impact of COVID-19 across the global economy is profound. The socioeconomic impacts of COVID-19, markets and supply chains have been disrupted, businesses are required to close or scale back operations, and millions have or will lose their jobs and livelihoods.[xi] The International Labour Organization (ILO) has estimated that full or partial lockdown measures now affect almost 2.7 billion workers, representing around 81% of the world’s workforce, while the International Monetary Fund (IMF) projects a significant contraction of global output from 2020.[xii] COVID-19 is lurching the world economy towards a global recession, which will be strikingly different from past recessions.[xiii] Emerging evidence on the impact of COVID-19 suggests that women’s economic and productive lives will be affected disproportionately and differently from men and further deepen gender inequality. Across the globe, women earn less, save less, hold less secure jobs, are more likely to be employed in the informal sector – hence, their capacity to absorb economic shocks is therefore less than that of men.
Overall, women in Timor-Leste encounter difficulty in accessing formal employment compared to men, due to gendered barriers born by a strong patriarchal culture which creates a significant gap in formal employment. Lower literacy, limited access to education and training, coupled with domestic and reproductive obligations limit women’s ability to gain paid work beyond subsistence cultivation, informal small-scale trading, and home-based industries. The division of labor is strongly gendered and is legitimized by traditional patriarchal values, norms and practices at many fronts, be it at home or in areas where most people work such as agriculture, services and sales.
At home, women and girls have primary responsibility for unpaid household work, reproductive work, child-rearing and caring for the elderly, and married women are expected to be of service to their husbands by cooking, cleaning, collecting water and taking care of the domestic sphere. In the agricultural sector, men undertake work that is perceived as ‘labor intensive’, such as working in rice and maize fields, coffee growing, raising and selling livestock, burning gardens for new cultivation and ploughing, whereas women undertake ‘less heavy’ work such as planting, weeding, harvesting and selling produce. A significant proportion of women’s work is in subsistence cultivation, informal small-scale trading (such as weaving and trading traditional tais cloth) and home-based industries. Men are expected to sustain their family’s financial needs through agricultural activities or paid labor and the paid labor force is also significantly divided by gender.
Consequently, women represent only 32% of formal employment, while males represent 61%.[xiv] The pandemic has further pushed women into poverty because their capacity to absorb economic shocks is minimal and their survival means via the informal sector has been halted by governmental measures for school closures and social distances. The majority of women in Timor-Leste earn their living through the informal sector such as selling vegetables in the markets, foods at schools and churches, working in restaurants, retail care and domestic work – all of which has been affected significantly by COVID-19.
Such disparity is also evident in the economic recovery measures in Timor-Leste. During the outbreak, the government of Timor-Leste introduce a number of economic packages both to help households and individual workers to fill income gaps. Unfortunately, these subsidies for families and workers were unable to reach the women most in need.[xv] To be eligible for a household payment, one must be the head of a household and more than 80% of them in Timor-Leste are male. In addition, the government also provided subsidies to workers, however these subsidies were only for people in formal employment or those registered under the social security scheme. Unfortunately, due to inconsistent and insufficient income in the informal economy, many women workers in the informal sectors were not registered and therefore were not eligible for the cash subsidy.
Women’s more precarious economic status increased their vulnerabilities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Loss of business income in the informal sector, coupled with the lack of access to productive assets due to strong patriarchal norms and practices, force women to be dependent on men, including for potentially life-saving decisions such as access to nutritious food and access to healthcare services, which come with related costs or access to information and knowledge. As the main income earner, the husband’s health and wellbeing may be prioritized, and women may be expected to more readily ‘sacrifice’ their smaller income to manage impacts of COVID-19 on the family, such as caring for sick family members, looking after children or helping children with distance studying due to school closures, further disempowering women economically. As the rate of death for COVID-19 appears to be higher for men than women so far, widowed women may also face significant financial strain to support their families, with limited opportunities to improve their financial status and less access to and control over financial resources.
COVID-19 impacts place women in Timor-Leste further behind men
Timor-Leste as a new nation and one of the poorest countries in the world is already struggling to provide essential services to its people. COVID-19 has worsened this situation. Evidently, the COVID-19 pandemic and its associated economic crisis have impacted women differently than men. More importantly, the effects of the COVID-19 crisis and governmental measures to halt the spread of the virus are putting in jeopardy the progress achieved in the past two decades in terms on the reduction of poverty and gender inequalities. It is deepening poverty and inequality in Timor-Leste.
[i] Ministry of Finance, 2016. Poverty in Timor-Leste 2014 (Dili)
[ii] The Asia Foundation, 2016. Nabilan Health and Life Experience Survey 2015 (Dili) https://asiafoundation.org/publication/the-nabilan-health-and-life-experiences-study-fact-sheet-1/
[iii] Guteriano Neves, 2020. ‘Timor-Leste: the Consequences of COVID-19’ https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/timor-leste-consequences-covid-19
[iv] John Hopkins Center for Health Security et al.,2019; INFORM Global Risk Index, 2020. https://drmkc.jrc.ec.europa.eu/inform-index/INFORM-Risk/Country-Profile/moduleId/1767/id/419/controller/Admin/action/CountryProfile
[vi] Government of Timor-Leste, https://reliefweb.int/report/timor-leste/timor-leste-floods-urgent-call-assistance
[ix] Tatoli, http://tatoli.tl/pt/2021/07/02/covid-19-mais-83-casos-ativos-e-42-recuperacoes/. Accessed 2 July 2021
[xi] United Nations, 2020. ‘Shared Responsibility, Global Solidarity: Responding to the Socio-Economic Impacts of Covid-19 March 2020’. https://unsdg.un.org/sites/default/files/2020-03/SG-Report-Socio-Economic-Impact-of-Covid19.pdf
[xiv] Elizabeth Cowan, May 2013.’Gender and Power Analysis: Timor-Leste, Care International in Timor-Leste
[xv] Ministry of Social Solidarity and Inclusion, (2020) ‘Summary data analysis report - COVID-19 Payment Point Monitoring Surveys’, July 2020; The Asia Foundation, 2021. ‘Timor-Leste Covid-19: Household cash transfer’ https://asiafoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/Timor-Leste-Covid-19-Household-Cash-Transfer-Executive-Summary-EN.pdf
Ms. Carmeneza Dos Santos Monteiro is researcher, policy adviser and development practitioner in Timor-Leste. At the moment, she is a commissioner for Civil Service Commission. She has worked with government agencies in Timor-Leste such as Office of the Prime Minister, Ministry of Social Solidarity and Inclusion, and Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade as well as working with various international organizations such as the Asia Foundation, AUSAID, UNDP, United Nations Missions in Timor-Leste. She holds BA in International Relations from Australian National University.
This article does not represent any institutions that the author is affiliated with.
The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of Heinrich Böll Stiftung.