At age 18, Maria Manuela Perreira decided not to flee with her family to Portugal because she felt her life and commitment lay in East Timor. Since then, she has unwaveringly committed to the principles of equity, justice, and peace in a country that has experienced decades of oppression, conflict, and destruction. In a new era of independence and reconstruction, Maria Manuela shows outstanding vision and compassion as the director of a women’s organization that works tirelessly for the social, economic, and political rights of women against a backdrop of patriarchy and immense poverty.
The second eldest of 11 children, Maria Manuela Perreira decided not to go with her family to Portugal in 1986 when they were fleeing from life in Indonesian-occupied East Timor. She felt her life and responsibility lay in Timor. She returned to Timor after studies in Yogyakarta and worked as a trainer at Bia Hula NGO, training communities in water and sanitation. She enjoyed the work principles of community consultation and providing communities with the means to help themselves. Maria Manuela has always been opposed to the strictures of Timorese cultural and traditional expectations, particularly regarding women’s status, relationships and the acceptable paths for women to take in life. In 1998, she began working as a volunteer at Fokupers, the newly established women's organization, and spent much time in the women’s shelters, talking to female victims of domestic violence and becoming a proxy counselor to them. In 1999, much of Fokupers’ work was destroyed and Maria became part of the team rebuilding the organization. She took on the roles of treasurer and office manager. A year later, Maria was elected as the new director of Fokupers and remains until now a respected mentor and leader to staff and clients alike. Her work has inspired the NGO community in East Timor, and the Action Men against Violence (AMKV), and facilitated men’s acceptance of gender equality in society. Her work has also gained support for pending domestic violence legislation, strengthened the role of women in the community, and has introduced a model of women’s shelters (Uma Feto) that the new government can adopt. Maria Manuela is passionate about empowering women at the grassroots level so that they have the skills and confidence to be actively engaged in the development of their own villages and instigate sustainable social change.