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Echoes of war

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 in Timorese society.

Post-war gender-related violence occurs for many reasons. Contributing factors include: post-traumatic stress disorders and untreated mental health problems within families and communities, and a reluctance by men to admit to psychological distress. Many women are also unaware of their legal rights. Socially, there is high unemployment and many relationships have been disrupted through the loss of loved ones, homes and possessions, all of which impacts community, church and family relationships.

The negative influence on men and boys living in an oppressive militaristic environment for 24 years combined with patriarchal attitudes and a tolerance of wife beating have fostered a ‘normalisation’ of violence.

The true figures for the number of women violated during the occupation will never be known but the impact of such assaults on women is evident in ongoing health problems including HIV/AIDS, sexually transmitted diseases and recurring reproductive problems—not to mention the emotional and psychological effects of such corrosive experiences.

Rape carries a terrible stigma in Timorese society. Rape not only brings shame upon the victim but also upon her family. Women who were violated during the militia campaigns of terror in 1999 and who subsequently gave birth to ‘rape babies’ were often shunned by their communities. This is devastating in a culture in which families are bound together through complex marriage ties and compounds the despair and isolation of already traumatised women. Many rape victims believe that not only have they transgressed against God but they will no longer attract a husband because their honour and reputation has been ruined.

Fokupers, (a Bahasa word meaning communication forum for women) is a leading women’s advocacy group and has done much towards dispelling the myths around sexual crimes and domestic violence. They offer counselling services to women and undertake education and awareness raising using community radio, theatre and group mediation workshops across the country. Programs are designed around the fact that 64 per cent of women and 57 per cent of men are illiterate, so written material is only appropriate to a small section of the community. Fokupers work in conjunction with several foreign and local NGOs to teach women about their rights and the legal avenues available to them. It also liaises with the Vulnerable Person’s Unit.

Manuela Perreira, Fokupers Executive Director says, ‘Before, we didn’t give attention to this matter. During occupation people just concentrated on getting independence. They think domestic violence is a private individual problem but it’s a public problem. Awareness by women about their rights is very low so we try to educate through radio. It takes time, especially the girl whose parents don’t want other people to know about the rape. They don’t see the importance [of] heal[ing] the daughter only that they don’t feel shame.’

The Alola Foundation, started by First Lady Kirsty Sword Gusmão, has expanded since its inception in 2001 when it focused on the issue of sexual violence against Timorese women in the West Timor refugee camps. It now encompasses domestic violence education, mother and baby health, a scholarship program for girls, tais weaving and other micro credit initiatives and Timor Leste’s first Women’s Resource Centre in Dili. It works directly with Fokupers and Rede Feto; an umbrella organisation of diverse women’s groups to implement positive changes for women and their families. 

Young Timorese men have been active in changing entrenched patriarchal attitudes. In 2003 a group of young activists started the first Association of Men Against Violence, which has now expanded into three such collectives. They are the only male group members of Rede Feto and collaborate with women to develop culturally appropriate strategies. Local tradition dictates that only men may act as the heads of hamlets and villages and dispense justice. And customary law dictates that women cannot own or inherit property. It is believed at least 45 per cent of women are widowed as a consequence of the long years of armed struggle and are particularly vulnerable to sexual and economic exploitation. Changing the attitudes of men about the rights of women is therefore a vital part of the justice process.

Attempts have been made to strengthen women’s legal entitlements through Domestic Violence Draft Legislation but many feel it is simply symbolic, as tolerance of wife beating is just as endemic within the judicial system as it is amongst the educated elite. Sentences for domestic violence can range from two to six months and have a limited deterrent effect. When a husband, convicted of wife beating, returns to the community, the wife is often left to face the consequences. Women are particularly vulnerable when it comes to the resolution of gender specific crimes using local customary laws called ‘adat’. The common way to resolve criminal and civil disputes is for the Lian Nain (family mediator), Chef de Aldeia (hamlet head) or Chef du Suco (village head) to call the families of both the victim and perpetrator together to discuss the transgression. A common ‘fine’ for rape is for the perpetrator to pay with buffalo and perhaps a cash sum agreed by both parties. No consideration is given to the physical, emotional or psychological trauma of the victim and her public shame. Provision is rarely made for the upkeep of a child if she gives birth as a result of the violation.

Many women do go to the local police but are often dealt with in a less than sensitive way. The members of Timor’s police are subject to their own upbringing and cultural beliefs regarding the carefully prescribed roles of males and females. The law demands such crimes be dealt with by the already overloaded court system in Dili. Women who report abuse are often caught in a cycle of deferred responsibility as local police send them back and forth through traditional channels.

For those persistent enough to lay charges it often means seeking refuge in one of only a handful of safe houses in the country. Dili has just one and it has bee struggling to survive through lack of funds.

It is the strong voice of women bound by the bitter experiences of oppression and struggle who are determined that their newly-won freedom should benefit everyone. The optimism of Sofia, Eva and Umbelina is encouraging, but gaining overdue recognition for women’s role in the clandestine movement and being accorded their full rights as contributing citizens to the world’s newest democracy is still a battle they must fight.

Dawn Delaney is a freelance photojournalist. She has published a photo documentary Surviving the Occupation—Stories of East Timorese Women.




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