$496,000 State Department Grant Uses Weaving to Empower Women, Girls in Timor-Leste

By Melanie Arter | October 16, 2015 | 7:28pm EDT
On Aug. 30, 1999, citizens near Dili, East Timor, waved registration papers before a vote on independence. (AP Photo)

(CNSNews.com) - The State Department is planning to award $496,000 in taxpayer funds to help female weavers in the Southeast Asian nation of Timor-Leste.

The goal of the grant, titled, “Women Weaving a Better Future through Better Business,” is to advance “economic empowerment for women and girls” so they will “avoid abusive relationships, stay in school, become economically self-sufficient, contribute to the evolving economy of Timor-Leste, and promote cultural traditions of Timor-Leste through the modernization of marketing strategies and development of collectives for traditional tapestries.”

The U.S. Embassy in Dili, Timor-Leste announced the funding opportunity for a new program with the goal of helping “female artisans develop a sustainable business collective, access international markets, and increase revenue.”

“Independent for just over ten years, Timor-Leste is confronting many challenges as a new nation. Among these, some of the most difficult are endemic rates of gender-based violence, limited economic opportunity, and pressures for girls to terminate education early,” the embassy noted on its website.

In the largely male-dominated culture, “incidents of rape and incest have disproportionately affected school-age girls, forcing them to leave school early,” the embassy noted.

“Teen pregnancies are met with pressure from communities to quit school and marry -- often resulting in girls marrying their abusers,” it added. More than 50 percent of women report partner abuse at least once in their lifetime.

“Women are generally restricted from participating in much formal economic work. Instead, they are expected to stay at home and tend to the family. As a result, women often lack resources to leave abusive relationships,” the embassy stated.

The program is designed to “modernize local skills and develop business practices for artisan weavers” in the region, “develop a united, organized collective for women weavers,” provide a scholarship and internship program for girls, “identify new markets and develop strategies for international market access,” and provide “sub-grants to local organizations working to empower women through economic opportunity in the artisan industry.”

“Bright spots, literally and figuratively, in this framework are the intricate woven fabrics, tais, that Timorese women produce. The artistic tapestries have been a form of currency in trade for much of Timor-Leste’s history. They are still utilized in formal ceremonies and, where it still exists, bride prices,” the embassy stated.

“The success of occasional appearances by individual producers at international craft fairs made possible by funding from NGOs, including sell-out trips to the renowned International Folk Art Market in Santa Fe, New Mexico, indicates that the products have commercial potential,” it stated. “However, producers currently lack access to broader markers needed to sustain a business operation.

“In addition to providing a much-needed export product to propel economic growth, a more developed tais industry would directly empower women and girls. Timor-Leste is also entering a new era of its economic future as it begins to build service-oriented skills.

According to a State Department official, the U.S. embassy in Dili awarded “the small grant” in September “under the Secretary’s Full Participation Fund (FP Fund).”

“Announced in 2013, and managed by the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues, the FP Fund supports bureaus within the State Department and embassies around the globe that develop innovative ways to achieve gender equality in the work that they do. Income arising from women’s economic participation is more likely to be spent on women’s families (including their children),” the official wrote in an email to CNSNews.com.

“Making an investment in women business-owners and entrepreneurs is one way of helping Timorese families build sustainable livelihoods and escape poverty,” the official wrote. “The project will enhance market opportunities and access for Timorese woven products, strengthen weaving collectives’ production and marketing of diverse high-quality woven products, support adolescent girls through educational scholarships and mentoring opportunities, and improve business and financial management skills of collective members.”

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