Activist, leader, civil servant, and founder of the women’s organization, Fokupers, Maria Fernandes began her life’s work for human rights and justice for East Timor in high school. She was instrumental in mobilizing the population to vote during the UN-sponsored referendum for independence in 1999 and organized the first National Women’s Congress in 2000 that produced a National Platform for Action. She currently serves as the Director of the Office for the Promotion of Equality and directly advises the Prime Minister on all issues relating to gender equality.
Maria Fernandes was one of the main women leaders organizing resistance activities against Indonesian occupation of Timor-Leste, after the invasion in 1975. When her child died, as did hundreds of other children, of a suspected overdose administered in the Indonesian campaign to kill off the Timorese people, Maria and her husband sent information to international organizations to highlight the abuses and try to prevent further deaths. When her husband was imprisoned by the Indonesian administration, Maria had to raise and provide for her children alone, but she continued to support the resistance movement against the Indonesian occupation, and more particularly against the abuses women were suffering. She helped set up the Popular Organization of Timorese Women (OPMT) and worked as a civil servant in the Department of Industry and Commerce, a dual role that involved many risks to her personal safety. In 1994, she was arrested by Indonesian soldiers and threatened and intimidated over her resistance activities. In 1997, Maria founded Fokupers and during the UN-sponsored referendum for independence in 1999, was involved in mobilizing the population to vote. As a result, her family had to flee to the hills to escape the systematic campaign of violence by Indonesian and militia forces. But Maria continued to organize assistance for those who were sick and was among the first people to return to Dili to confront the devastation left by the Indonesian campaign. Maria organized the first National Women’s Congress in 2000 that produced a National Platform for Action. She stood in the first national elections in 2002 but, despite not winning a seat, she was made Director of the Office for the Promotion of Equality and directly advises the Prime Minister on all gender equality issues.