Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


Echoes of war

  • 11 May 2006

Sofia Fernandes, 19, Eva Quintao, 22, and Umbelina Soares are the new faces of law and order in Timor Leste. All are graduates from the National Police Academy in Dili and are among the first policewomen to walk the beat in a nation whose collective memory of the Indonesian military is painful and prolonged. In the past, sexual violence against women was endemic so these new recruits are keen to change the perception of the police as corrupt and brutal. Sofia and Eva want to work in the Vulnerable Persons Unit, a special section of the police force established by the UNTAET administration (United Nations Transitional Authority in East Timor) to deal with crimes of violence against women and the particular needs of children and the mentally ill.

The sexual abuses perpetrated during the long, dark years of occupation have been well documented by human rights organisations. Women had a saying ‘you might violate my body but you can never touch my mind’. By ‘dividing’ themselves in two, between heart and mind, they were able to survive unspeakable cruelties. What has been less discussed in mainstream media since independence is the pattern of increased gender-based violence that blights many post-war transitional societies. In this respect, East Timor has much in common with other recovering conflict zones including Kosovo, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and in the past Eritrea, Cambodia and Vietnam. The danger from militia may have passed but women are still dealing with violence from within their own communities.

The United Nations states that ‘violence against women is the most pervasive yet least recognised human rights violation in the world’. According to many Timorese women’s advocacy groups and United Nations bodies operating in the country, the alarming increase in domestic violence, rape and sexual assault against women since 1999 is a major impediment to the rebuilding and healing process.

Around 47 per cent of all reported crimes across the nation are gender-based and over half of all cases before the Dili District Court are related to domestic violence. Aid agencies say that another 15 per cent go unreported through ignorance of the law, the fear of alienation from family, friends and the local community, and the fear of further violence.

These are sensitive, difficult topics to broach in any community but in Timor Leste, discussion of such issues is hampered by cultural taboos around sexuality, religion, and patriarchal beliefs about women’s roles