BOBONARO MUNICIPALITY, Timor-Leste - Bento Pereira is a farmer in a rural community located south-west of Timor-Leste’s capital Dili. Together with his four sons, daughter and wife, they have become a fine example of how gender-equitable parenting and the development of heathy relationships leads to the prevention of gender-based violence (GBV). But this shift in attitude and behaviour were not an overnight journey for Mr. Pereira, for in his community of Maliana in the municipality of Bobonaro, harsh disciplining has been and remains the norm.

"I learned that instilling gender equal values in our children at home is crucial as this will determine how they will treat women and girls throughout their lifetime.” - Bento Pereira, father

He is among the 450 parents across three municipalities (Bobonaro, Viqueque and Ermera) to have benefited from the Connect with Respect (CWR) programme implemented by Alola Foundation and Mane ho Vizaun Foun under the Spotlight Initiative since February 2021. The programme provided training to parents on positive parenting, where they learn critical skills for developing respectful family and gender-equitable relationships. These skills include: understanding social factors and harmful norms that perpetuate GBV; the mechanisms for preventing GBV; and building communication skills to improve parent-children bonds and power dynamics.

In Timor-Leste, violence against women and girls is prevalent, with 34 per cent of women experiencing physical or sexual violence between the ages of 15 and 49. GBV is not the only societal problem affecting relationships within Timor-Leste’s families. There are also widespread norms regarding child-rearing and discipline that can be harmful to children, often disproportionately affecting girls. The “Parenting Education Programme to Improve Developmental Outcomes for Disadvantaged Children and Adolescents in Timor-Leste”, has found that 83 per cent of parents believe that it is sometimes necessary to frighten or threaten their children to make them behave, and 46 per cent believe that physical punishment is the way to educate a child properly.

Man smiling with wife and child
Bento Pereira with his daughter and wife in his house in Maliana, Bobonaro municipality. Photo: UN Women/Jaime Luis

The CWR programme rolled out in October 2021. After completing 10 sessions of positive parenting training, Mr. Pereira stated “With the activities, I learned that instilling gender equal values in our children at home is crucial as this will determine how they will treat women and girls throughout their lifetime.”

Seven months later, still a firm believer in gender equality, Mr. Pereira shared that the CWR programme has given him new insights. He insisted that this programme should continue to expand to isolated areas to reach more people who lack knowledge on the dangers of GBV.

“It is going great at home,” Mr. Pereira said. “My kids know that they are all special and we value them equally. My wife and I share the responsibilities equally to our children, like you can see here, helping to harvest rice is one tough job and primarily considered a male’s responsibility but my daughter and sons come to help when they can. It is the same at home, there is no gendered responsibility.”

“Being the only girl is normally hard as you are burdened with all the work just because you are a girl. I am happy we are brought up equally.” - Laura Pereira, Mr. Pereira's daughter

His daughter Laura Pereira, who is the youngest child and only daughter, agrees. “Being the only girl is normally hard as you are burdened with all the work just because you are a girl,” she said. “I am happy we are brought up equally.”

Traditionally, women and girls are served last in family meals. Mr. Pereira sees this as a potential to cause conflict among family members and chooses not to apply it at home.

Aside from this, Mr. Pereira shares that his messages on respectful relationships have not only inspired change in his household but are also reaching the ears of his community. “When we support the habit of using slurs and communicating disrespectfully at home, it becomes normal to our children, and they will do the same when interacting with others. In the end, what this will continue to contribute to is violence.”

“The community here is ingrained with traditional norms that often perpetuate gender-based violence. Although it takes time to undo this, it is possible to combat it when we are aware of the prevention measures. I am delighted to have participated in the training,” Mr. Pereira said.

By Sylvio Da Fonseca. Originally published by UN Women.