The ABA ROLI-led Women and Girls Empowered (WAGE) consortium, funded by the Secretary’s Office of Global Women's Issues at the U.S. Department of State, is implementing the “Business and Social Support for Female Entrepreneurs in Timor-Leste (BEST)” program to address the intertwined social, economic, and regulatory challenges faced by women microentrepreneurs in starting, maintaining, and expanding businesses. While the Constitution and statutory laws guarantee equal rights, women continue to experience bias and discrimination in practice, driven by historically patriarchal social norms and customary laws.
In 2002, Timor-Leste gained its independence after centuries under Portuguese rule followed by 24 years of Indonesian occupation. In this young nation, the patriarchal system continues to define gender roles and power dynamics within households, communities, and in the market economy. Men are generally viewed as the head of the household, taking the role of economic provider, while women are in charge of child-rearing and household chores, which limit their capacity to engage in their own economic activities. Additionally, women entrepreneurs are expected to be the primary caregivers while managing micro and small businesses. Timorese women also face a high risk of gender-based violence (GBV), rooted in unequal gender norms and poverty, including physical, sexual, emotional, and economic violence. Even though women entrepreneurs make up 43% of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSME) owners in Timor-Leste and are identified as engines of growth in the national economy, they face greater challenges starting and scaling their businesses than men. Key barriers to women entrepreneurs’ ability to participate in and benefit from economic activities include entrenched gender norms and expectations, time constraints, limited access to financial resources and GBV services.
The WAGE BEST program aims to address barriers faced by women entrepreneurs by working with microfinance institutions (MFIs) and local women’s empowerment civil society organizations (WE CSOs) to provide them with access to financial, entrepreneurial, and social support. WAGE BEST has three central objectives: 1) strengthen the organizational and technical capacities of MFIs in Timor-Leste to provide gender-responsive services to women entrepreneurs; 2) work with leading WE CSOs to improve the quality of business and livelihoods (e.g., food production, weaving, among others) trainings, GBV services, and microfinance services to benefit vulnerable women entrepreneurs; and 3) formalize mutually beneficial linkages between MFIs and WE CSOs to expand women entrepreneurs’ access to financial, business, and GBV services.
MFIs are the primary source of credit for women in Timor-Leste with the two largest MFIs extending the majority of their loan portfolio to women microentrepreneurs. While MFIs provide access to finance to women entrepreneurs, their services are not attuned to gender norms or linked to business and social support services. The WAGE BEST initiative provides support for MFIs to take action to build the resilience of women entrepreneurs who are vulnerable to GBV and other shocks and stresses (e.g., health crises, conflict and crime in the external environment) through trainings and linkages to GBV support services, among others. WE CSOs offer business skills and GBV trainings that reduce Timorese women and girls’ vulnerability to poverty and violence, but these services do not always reach microfinance clients. Given the lack of institutional linkages, women entrepreneurs are not able to access financial and social support services in an optimal fashion, reducing the resilience, growth potential and local economic impact of their businesses. By linking the MFI clients with WE CSOs, women entrepreneurs can gain access to much needed business and social services to strengthen their skills and to launch, manage, and grow their businesses. The WAGE BEST initiative enables women entrepreneurs in Timor-Leste to gain access to a more holistic package of financial and social support, leading to enterprise growth and resilience.
 East Timor country profile - BBC News