Dr Kirsty Sword Gusmão, AO
2017 saw presidential and parliamentary elections take place in a peaceful and stable environment across Timor-Leste. I am proud of the role that Alola’s staff played in continuing to promote the active contribution of women in the democratic process, both as party political leaders and voters. Alola managers and staff were also able to visit all thirteen municipalities to monitor the elections and to guard against discrimination, violence and intimidation. Over 30% of elected members of parliament were women, continuing the inspiring tradition of women’s leadership in the national political arena.
In August 2017 I was privileged to lead a Study Tour to Timor-Leste and to introduce the 8 Australian participants to some of the people and places that were pivotal in the nation’s Independence struggle. It was also a great pleasure and a source of pride to take the visitors on a tour of Fundasaun Alola and to share with them some of the highlights of Alola’s contributions to national development over the past 16 years.
Since the Study Tour had a thematic focus on education, we visited a number of primary and pre-schools in Dili and beyond. Included among them was the small Lacoto Pre-School, located in the neighbourhood of my former home, some 10 kilometres south of Dili. My mother and I established the school from nothing but with the strong and active support of the community back in 2001. Whilst in general terms, this community is an under-privileged one, it is lucky in that it has a facility that caters for early childhood education. The gross enrolment rate (GER) for pre-school education in Timor-Leste is 16.9 per cent, one of the lowest rates in Southeast Asia. One of the contributing factors is the lack of a local pre-school or early learning facility.
Since 2016, Alola has been the chief implementing partner in an Alternative Community Pre-Schools project, funded by the NZ Government and UNICEF. The project has given some 5,000 children in remote areas access to early childhood learning opportunities in community centres and in private homes where no pre-school exists. Making use of community leaders such as village heads as advocates, the aim is to improve school readiness, thus facilitating a smoother transition to primary education. Alola’s Education team has put its many years of experience of teacher training, community mobilisation and learning resource development to great effect in this project, earning it the respect of the donor partners, local target communities and the Ministry of Education.
Being based back in Melbourne has enabled me to enjoy a closer link and collaboration with our “sisters” and partners at Alola Australia. It was a great privilege to have been asked to speak at the annual Alola Australia fund-raising dinner in October 2017 alongside the author of the new book, “Crossing the Line”, Ms Kim McGrath. Kim spoke passionately about the subject of her book which is an issue of vital importance to Timor-Leste’s economic future – the delineation of a permanent maritime boundary in the Timor Sea. The some 114 attendees on the night listened, learned, enjoyed the company of old and new friends and donated generously, with over $18,000 raised.
I am grateful to Alola Australia and to our many other donors and partners in the Australian community, on the ground in Timor-Leste and from around the world for the shared vision of a more healthy and dignified life for the wonderful women of Timor-Leste, their children and families.
I commend CEO, Alzira Reis, the managers and staff of Fundasaun Alola for continuing to be at the forefront of the struggle to advance the rights and interests of women and their families in Timor-Leste.
Kirsty Sword Gusmão