Subject: Healing East Timor (sexual violence)
December 19, 2002, Thursday
Healing East Timor
by SUE HOBAN
FOR the past two years Susan Kendall, the social worker who co-ordinates northern Sydney's sexual assault service, has been leading a double life.
Two weeks ago she left her office and well established facilities at Royal North Shore Hospital to make the by now familiar trip to East Timor.
A few days later she was back in the field in Dili, working closely with locals to try to address the problems of sexual and domestic violence in a country where about 70 per cent of women are believed to have been raped.
Ms Kendall, who has spent at least 12 months of the past two years in East Timor, said the true figure may in fact be much higher.
She first became involved in the reconstruction effort in East Timor when she helped train a group of health workers who were setting up their first mental health service.
Ms Kendall was later invited to Dili to attend a women's congress and stayed for two months to help them get the service established.
She said the congress, attended by more than 500 women from all parts of the country, identified violence against women including sexual assault and domestic violence as a major priority. "What is happening there now is unique the national leadership and the government now clearly see the need to deal with the trauma from that violence as being just as important for the country to be able to move on as issues like better housing, health and education," Ms Kendall said.
of occupation and repression, including low literacy and infant mortality the highest in the Asia-Pacific region.
Ms Kendall said the Indonesian regime pursued a policy of reducing the Timorese birthrate by giving women injections to make them infertile. As a result, pregnant women avoided doctors and did not get proper care for themselves of their babies.
Then there was the estimated 60-70 per cent of East Timorese women who were illiterate, she said. "That is largely because parents would keep the girls home from school once they reached puberty because that was when the TNI (Indonesian military) got hold of girls and there were a lot of child marriages," she said.
She related stories of young women who had been raped alongside their widowed mothers and sisters and said it was conceivable that many East Timorese families would have three generations of women who had experienced rape.
But she was concerned not to paint too harrowing a picture, pointing to the progress which had been made in the three years since East Timor was virtually razed after the referendum vote.
A safe room for women and children who experienced either sexual or domestic violence had recently opened at the Dili Base Hospital. Ms Kendall has also been involved through Caritas Australia in putting together a community education program on sexual assault which is now being delivered around the country by a team of 12 men and women.
"The way the community is receiving that is an indication of how important they think it is to address this issue," she said.
But the flow of expertise has not all been one way. Ms Kendall said there were lessons from the East Timor approach which she was keen to bring back to Australia, notably the value of including men in sexual assualt education programs.
Caritas Australia is taking donations for the Pradet Timor Lorosa'e service, set up to provide counselling for trauma victims, one of many programs Susan Kendall has been helping. Phone 9956 5799.
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