Timor-Leste

Diversity and Inclusion

The Peace Corps seeks to reflect the rich diversity of the U.S. and bring diverse perspectives and solutions to development issues in the countries we serve. For the Peace Corps, diversity is a collection of individual attributes that together help the agency pursue organizational objectives efficiently and effectively. These include national origin, language, race, color, disability, ethnicity, gender, age, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, socioeconomic status, veteran status, and family structures. Diversity also encompasses where people are from, where they have lived, and their differences of thought and life experiences.

We also seek to create inclusion—a culture that connects each staff and Volunteers to the organization; encourages collaboration, flexibility, and fairness; and leverages diversity throughout the organization so that all individuals are able to participate and contribute to their full potential—throughout the Volunteer and staff lifecycle.

Diversity and Inclusion at Your Site

Once Volunteers arrive at their sites, diversity and inclusion principles remain the same but take on a different shape, in which your host community may share a common culture and you—the Volunteer—are the outsider. You may be in the minority, if not the sole American like you, at your site. You will begin to notice diversity in perspectives, ethnicity, age, depth of conversation, and degree of support you may receive—and may need to make adjustments. During pre-service training, a session will be held to discuss diversity and inclusion and how you can transcend differences, find common ground, and serve as an ally for your peers.

Cross-Cultural Considerations

The Peace Corps emphasizes professional behavior and cross-cultural sensitivity among Volunteers and within their communities to help integration and achieve successful service. As a Volunteer and representative of the United States, you are responsible both for sharing the diversity of U.S. culture (yours and other Americans’) with your host country national counterparts, and also for learning from your host country’s diversity. 

To ease the transition to life in your host country, you may need to make some temporary, yet fundamental, compromises in how you present yourself as an American and as an individual, and will need to develop techniques and personal strategies for coping with these limitations. During pre-service training, staff will provide training on how to adapt personal choices and behavior to be respectful of the host country culture, and will be available for ongoing support. 

What Might a Volunteer Face?

Gender Roles

It will be important to absorb and to attempt to understand the cultural nuances of gender roles in your host country. During pre-service training, you will receive an introduction to gender awareness in-country, and will take time to examine your own thinking about gender roles and how they have impacted you. You’ll then learn to analyze development projects using a gender lens to better understand gender roles in your host country and how these gender roles can benefit or limit what females and males may or may not do—both from a personal standpoint and in relation to work and relationships in-country.

Machismo is a term usually associated with Latin cultures, but in Timor-Leste the same phenomenon is manifest in both obvious and subtle ways. Timorese men and women accommodate male dominance in work, home, and community matters, often unaware of the negative consequences it may have for their personal development. Female Volunteers are sometimes targets for harassment, particularly if they disregard Timorese norms for behavior and dress. Female Volunteers in Timor-Leste may face the kinds of unwelcome attention from men that all local women face. Male Volunteers, on the other hand, may feel victimized by being viewed as sexual competitors. Volunteers must be very careful about developing or even appearing to develop relationships with Timorese. Dating implies a commitment to marriage. Physical intimacy in public, such as holding hands with a person of the opposite sex, is almost never seen, even between married or engaged couples.

Possible Issues for Volunteers of Color

Because of limited exposure, some foreign nationals will expect all U.S. citizens to be white, and are unaware of diversity in the U.S. For Volunteers, the range of responses to their skin color may vary greatly: from being mistaken for a host country national to being questioned about their U.S. citizenship, to facing behavior and language skill expectations or ridicule, to being able to get better prices for goods and services. These instances can be turned into teachable moments for the Volunteer and the host country national. All Volunteers, including white Volunteers and those of color, should be mindful of the issues of race/ethnicity that are embedded in U.S. culture and within your country of service, and should be mindful of being an ally to your fellow Volunteers.

Timor-Leste has been a crossroads for migration for thousands of years, so the Timorese people themselves display a wide range of physical characteristics. A casual observer might notice strong evidence of Asian (particularly Chinese and Indonesian) features, as well as Polynesian, Melanesian, Papuan, and Australasian characteristics. Portuguese settlement on the island contributed to some European elements. As a result, Volunteers of color should encounter few problems, especially in comparison with other parts of the world. The Timorese categorize anyone who is non-Timorese as a malae (foreigner), irrespective of ethnic background or skin color. They also tend to hold similar stereotypes and assumptions of all malaes.

Possible Issues for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning/Queer, Ally (LGBTQA) Volunteers

The Peace Corps actively supports Volunteers and staff of all genders and sexual orientations, and encourages Volunteers to serve as allies to their fellow Volunteers in all aspects. Many countries where the Peace Corps serves have more restrictive cultures with regard to sexual orientation and non-conforming gender identities, though some are more permissive. In every country, Peace Corps staff will work with Volunteers to provide them with locally informed perspectives. Some LGBTQ Volunteers have chosen to come out to community members, with a result of positive and negative reactions, while some have come out only to select Peace Corps staff and Volunteers. Many have chosen to be discreet about their orientation and/or gender identity within their host community. LGBTQA support groups may be available in-country, providing a network to support the needs of the Peace Corps LGBTQA community. More information about serving as an LGBTQ Volunteer is available at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Peace Corps Alumni website at lgbrpcv.org. Additionally, the Peace Corps’ Office of Recruitment and Diversity can be reached at [email protected].

Same-sex relationships are considered taboo by most Timorese, and thus, gay, lesbian, and bisexual Volunteers may need to exercise discretion when it comes to their sexual orientation. Dili has a somewhat more metropolitan atmosphere than other places in Timor-Leste and may be more open. Volunteers must reconcile that they will need to adjust to the mores of conservative rural communities to develop productive social and professional relationships. That said, gay, lesbian, and bisexual Volunteers have served successfully in Timor-Leste. They have the full support of Peace Corps staff and experience has shown that they can also rely on the understanding and support of other Volunteers in Timor-Leste.

Possible Issues for Volunteers with Disabilities

Peace Corps staff will work with disabled Volunteers to support them in training, housing, jobsites, or other areas to enable them to serve safely and effectively. For additional support, the Peace Corps’ Office of Recruitment and Diversity can be reached at [email protected].

Possible Issues for Volunteer Couples

Couples often face pressure from host country nationals to change their roles to conform better with traditional relationships in-country. Host country nationals will often not understand American relationship dynamics and may be outwardly critical of relationships that do not adhere to traditional gender roles. It is also helpful to think about how pressures to conform to local culture can be challenging to men and women in very different ways. Considering how your partner is being affected and discussing what, if any, aspects of your relationship should be changed can help reduce stress for you both.

Serving as a couple in Timor-Leste will likely bring welcome attention from your friends and neighbors. Marriage is a valued institution and most couples marry quite young. It will be quite easy for you to integrate into social activities that are only open to married couples. However, there are culturally specific challenges. For example, Timorese spouses do not touch each other in public (or even in the privacy of their home if others are present). Additionally, most Timorese feel quite strongly that all married couples should have many children and you will likely get many questions about that subject. While these issues may seem minor, some couples have reported that they can become quite frustrating over the long term. Living separately enables each partner to give undivided attention to acquiring the language skills needed for his or her assignment and to spend more time in cross-cultural interactions with members of the host community. Couples who opt to live apart during training will have opportunities to see each other as the training schedule permits.

Possible Religious Issues for Volunteers

People in this overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country have little experience with those who have no religious affiliation or who belong to other religions (with the exception of Islam and Indonesian Hinduism). They are likely to be curious about, and some may even be suspicious of, non-Catholics, which could lead to seemingly rude behavior. On the whole, however, Timorese tend to recognize a difference between belief and practice, and non-Catholic Volunteers might simply state they are not “practicing.” Those who feel uncomfortable skirting the issue in this way are likely to find that if they state their beliefs in a non-challenging way, they will be accepted by the community.

Possible Issues for 50+ Volunteers

Older Volunteers may find their age an asset in-country and will often have access to individuals and insights that are not available to younger Volunteers. But, pre-service training can be particularly stressful for older trainees, whose lifelong learning styles and habits may or may not lend themselves to the techniques used. A 50+ individual may be the only older person in a group of Volunteers and initially may not feel part of the group. Some 50+ Volunteers may find it difficult to adapt to a lack of structure and clarity in their role after having worked for many years in a very structured and demanding job. More than younger Volunteers, older Volunteers may have challenges in maintaining lifelong friendships and may want to consider assigning power of attorney to someone in the States to deal with financial matters.