Subject: Canossian Mission Helps Empower Women Through Skills Training

June 20, 2007

EAST TIMOR Canossian Mission Helps Empower Women Through Skills Training

BAUCAU, East Timor (UCAN) -- Three years ago, Vitoria Soares Pereira was computer illiterate. Now she teaches computer courses to young women as part of a program run by Catholic nuns to help women from rural areas make a living.

Standing in the training center the Canossian sisters run in the hilly town of Baucau, 120 kilometers east of Dili, Pereira admitted, she "had never touched a computer" before 2004.

The 28-year-old now teaches women with little education and few vocational skills how to browse the Internet and use programs for word processing, spreadsheets and computerized presentations.

"I never planned on being a trainer," said Pereira. "It is just a little contribution to building up this country."

She is one of nearly 100 women who have benefited from structured training programs run by the Canossian sisters since 2000.

At the center, seven nuns and 10 other women instructors teach agriculture, cooking, music, soap making, traditional medicine, sewing and other skills. Courses typically last 10 months.

"We hope that through this kind of training, they can make their lives better," training director Sister Alice Maria de Sousa Soares told UCA News May 4.

They expect the students to put their skills to good use in their villages.

The nuns say they feel it is important to empower women in a country where women seldom get opportunities to study or work.

According to Sister Soares, 41, the training targets poor women from rural areas. "Women have fewer opportunities for higher education compared to men," she pointed out, adding that the programs aim to help women play their part in nation building.

Sabina Leopoldina de Sousa, 35, whose husband is a farmer, says she is grateful to the center for helping her acquire skills she used to help support her family and now shares with others.

After completing high school in 1998, lack of funds kept her from continuing to university. So she then stayed at home to help her parents farm.

In 2003 she enrolled in a sewing course at the nuns' center. After completing it the following year, she returned home to start a small sewing business. However, not long after, the nuns asked her to teach sewing to other students at the center.

"Thank God, now I can help others learn how to sew and how to help themselves," she told UCA News.

Soap making has proved a valuable skill. Every month the center sends 5,000-6,000 bars of soap to Australia and the Alola Foundation, a national NGO working for women. The soap has no synthetic chemical substances.

The sisters also arrange for handicraft groups to sell their woven products to hotels, restaurants or even abroad. The money earned is earmarked for setting up small businesses in villages.

The Canossian mission began with seven nuns who came to Timor Leste (East Timor) in 1965 from Italy.

In 1974, they opened a dormitory in Baucau so women from far away areas could come to study. Meanwhile, they taught catechism and helped the parish priest carry our parish activities.

In the 1980s, the nuns started teaching the women boarders sewing and domestic skills. They also encouraged participation in pastoral activities.

According to the Human Development Report 2006, published by the United Nations Development Program, 40 percent of the country's 1 million people live below the poverty line. Most people, 74 percent, live in the countryside. The unemployment rate for people in the 18-27 age range is 23 percent.

The nuns' center complements initiatives of national NGOs working for women in the country such as Rede Feto (women network), East Timor Women against Violence and FOKUPERS/Forum Komunikasi untuk Perempuan Loro sa'e (communication forum for women of East Timor)

Catholics form more than 90 percent of the people in Timor Leste, a former Portuguese colony that came under Indonesian rule 1975-99. Following a transitional period, it emerged fully independent in May 2002.


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