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An Interview with Alzira Freitas dos Reis
November 28, 2022
Alzira Freitas dos Reis, Abt Associates’ gender and diversity lead for the Australia-Timor-Leste Partnership for Human Development (PHD), is a passionate advocate for women’s and children’s rights, with a focus on ending gender-based violence.
Her role on the 10-year, Abt-led, Australian funded program, a partnership between the Australian and Timor-Leste governments, includes helping men and women understand how to build gender equality. The program aims to reduce poverty and enhance the wellbeing of the Timorese people. It brings national and local partners together to improve service delivery in health, education, and social protection. The program is committed to promoting gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls.
While the work is complex and sometimes challenging, Alzira has a simple philosophy for doing her job: “Always be positive and optimistic about what you are doing and why you are doing it,” she says. “Just be yourself and think of life as a journey of learning. We all have a hand in supporting each other for a better life.”
We sat down with Alzira to discuss what shaped her interest in women’s empowerment.
What brought you to the field of gender equality?
I grew up in a small village in Baucau municipality with two brothers and three sisters. My father was a civil servant, and my mother was in agriculture. I started my senior year in high school in a boarding house, St. Maria Mazarello, Venilale, with the nuns. It was through the church that I had my first opportunity to work in community development, volunteering to teach the children who came to the church.
When I graduated from secondary school, I was very fortunate to get an opportunity to work for not-for-profit organisations (such as the Alola Foundation, NGO Forum, Rede Feto – Timor-Leste Women’s Movement, and the United Nations) to deliver advocacy, economic empowerment, education and literacy, and maternal and child health programs. It was here that my passion for empowering women and helping people to thrive was ignited, and as I rose through the ranks, I built a reputation for being a passionate advocate for ending gender-based violence in Timor-Leste.
Gender based violence in Timor-Leste is a serious issue that needs to be tackled. It’s caused by the inequality resulting from harmful gender norms, which are used to attempt to justify violence against women. While the social and economic status of our people has improved since Timor-Leste became independent, many vulnerable people such as women, girls and people living with a disability still face barriers. Tackling gender-based violence and a government commitment to law enforcement to punish perpetrators of violence are key to improving the lives of many.
Why is improving gender equality in Timor Leste so important?
It is my lifelong mission to break down harmful gender norms and stereotypes in Timor-Leste. We need our young girls and women, especially those who are most vulnerable, to aspire to become leaders. Many women still think in patriarchal terms and don’t support each other to become leaders. We must take the lead and support each other to change outdated perceptions within our society: that women should do domestic work, stay home, and follow what men decide.
The journey and experiences in my life make it meaningful to me to continue to fight for the elimination of gender-based violence. When I was younger, families in rural areas prioritised their sons to continue their studies at university over their daughters. I was one of those women who could not continue my studies after I graduated from secondary school. In addition, men usually dominate decision-making in families and in society more broadly. I strongly believe this needs to change.
Eventually I put myself through university while I worked. I obtained my Bachelors in law and a Masters in Development Studies. These achievements have convinced my mother that boys and girls deserve equal treatment and respect in all aspects of life. Now, in my family we have overcome those harmful gender social norms. My brothers and sisters all have an equal seat at the table when making decisions. We all work to support girls and boys in the same way. In my family, our children will feel that their rights are respected, and there will be no gender gaps.
What is your role on the Partnership for Human Development Program?
When I was looking for my next challenge, the opportunity to work as the Manager for Gender Equality was too good to pass up. It combined my desire to help people with my passion for advocating for the rights of women and children. Part of my role is to develop a gender strategy for the program. This is exciting work as we are integrating gender into every aspect of program delivery, with a focus on real outcomes. I’m so pleased to be working on this program, and it is my hope that together we will see real change for the women and girls of Timor-Leste.