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Gender, empowerment, and cultural preservation at Topu Honis Shelter Home, Timor-Leste

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Women's empowerment, the ability of a woman to make her own decisions and shape her own life, is a common goal for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operating under the gender and development framework. This article examines the way that one NGO, Topu Honis Shelter Home, in Oecussi, Timor-Leste, facilitates the empowerment of its young women members and challenges gender norms in a patriarchal society. In doing six months of participant observation research at Topu Honis and semi-structured interviews, I discerned four sources of empowerment, which are explored in this article: (1) gender equality, (2) education, (3) agency and confidence, and (4) cultural preservation. The primary finding of this research is the suggestion that cultural preservation can be an important resource for empowering women, even in a patriarchal society. At first glance, this may run counter to the dominant western notions of empowerment, but in the case of Topu Honis, key cultural practices are preserved while oppressive gender norms are simultaneously dis-embedded. Development practitioners should explore how preserving and promoting local cultural practices may contribute to development and/or empowerment.
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Keywords: Timor-Leste; agencia; agency; cultural preservation; empoderamiento; empowerment; gender norms; nongovernmental organization; normas de género; organización no-gubernamental: Timor Oriental; preservación cultural

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Department of Geology and Geography, West Virginia University, Morgantown, WV, USA

Publication date: November 26, 2015

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