Subject: Voices Unabridged: A Cruel History for East-Timorese Women

Voices Unabridged The E-Magazine on Women and Human Rights Worldwide

A Cruel History for East-Timorese Women

by Sophie Boudre, 2004-01-19

As violence against women is recognized as a major health concern worldwide, Timor-Leste is struggling to overcome domestic violence, which has been growing at an alarming rate. While the tiny new independent country is recovering from the wounds of a long fight for freedom, 51 percent of married East-Timorese women say they feel unsafe in their relationship.

Rosa* is scared. Her father, who has been beating her mother repeatedly, has been released from prison for the second time. Once again, the 20-year-old girl must seek refuge in her grandmother's tiny house, a shack made of corrugated iron sheets and naked concrete floors. "Mom is in the community safe house, but I can't contact her or tell my sisters, otherwise my father will beat us too to find out where she is," Rosa says. Domestic violence in Timor-Leste accounts for some 45 percent of all crime cases in the young country and makes up 67 percent of the cases reported to the police. But authorities say almost all Timorese families are affected by it.

Timor-Leste's women have long borne the burden of a cruel history. The tiny half-island country became independent on May 20, 2002, after 25 years of forced occupation by its Indonesian neighbor. One quarter of its population is believed to have been lost throughout the conflict, which reached a dramatic climax following a United Nations-sponsored referendum in August of 1999 in favor of independence. Over a few weeks, pro-Indonesia militias went on a rampage, driving 500,000 people from their homes, half of them out of the territory. When they were done, the once bustling capital of Dili, had been reduced to ashes.

Bela Galhos has returned to her country of origin after years of exile in Canada. The brisk little woman still bears the emotional and physical scars of the struggle for independence. On top of the killings, the rapes and the constant threats carried out by militias and the Indonesian military, the government pared down the population by limiting the reproductive rights of women in the territory. Bela says an estimated 95,000 women had received sterilizing injections since 1975. She remembers soldiers coming to her school and asking all the young women to line up. All the young boys were told to leave. "They told us we needed to be injected to stay healthy. I was frightened; five of them had to hold me down. Then they came to my home the same week and injected me again."

"Wife beating" Part of a Culture of Violence

The trauma of the recent years, according to some, has helped shape a culture of violence, in which "wife beating" has become one of the most common forms. Ex-guerrillas who spent 25 years in hiding learned little but survival skills. "Maybe because we have suffered for so long with the conflict, people became brutal" speculates a social worker in Dili. Many also placed high hopes in the hardly-fought freedom, expecting jobs and money for all once the United Nations handed over power to the new government. Mica Baretto, a young Timorese woman living in New York, asserts, "Independence is a password to freedom but it can't guarantee everything. Frustration and dissatisfaction are normal for a newborn country."

If women are the ones to suffer the most, it is because the men in Timor-Leste are traditionally seen as breadwinners of the household while women are subjected to them as stipulated in the Indonesian Civil Code. "My business is everybody's business, then when I get married, it's my husband's business and then his whole family's," sighs Mica. "Being a girl, you never get out of the chain of control." Moreover, the increased price of dowry (Barlake), although it is part of the Timorese culture, has only led to more violence. The husband and its family have to pay up to 2,500 U.S. dollars and 70 buffaloes for the daughter of a Liurai, a traditional king. "So they see themselves as being in the right to demand bridal obligations," explains Ana Graca, a domestic violence adviser with the Government of Timor-Leste.

Despite efforts from NGOs and United Nations bodies, Graca says that physical structures to assist victims of violence are very scarce in Timor. Two safe houses have been set up for women who seek shelter and counseling, and the police now have a special unit that deals with domestic violence cases. Nevertheless, a lot of women, especially in rural areas, still prefer to deal with violence within the family or close friend circles. According to Dan Baker, Chief of Operations at the United Nations Populations Fund (UNFPA) in Dili, "It is a result of deeply held cultural beliefs." In a recent survey, 84 percent of women said family problems should be discussed with people in the family, "which is one reason it is so hard to combat domestic violence here," says Baker. Moreover, in this overwhelming Catholic and former Portuguese colony, divorce is a last option. "Priests are the main mediators in Timor-Leste, that's why divorce hasn't really come up here because they always end up saying: that's a fork and spoon colliding. It's considered a domestic matter," says Baretto.

Setting up a legal framework to deal with a pressing issue that hinders social development remains a challenge for the new democracy. "For the time being, criminal cases are regulated by the Indonesian Penal Code, which is very weak regarding protecting women against violence. Domestic violence is not recognized or codified. The scope of offenses committed within the family is very restricted. Rape within marital relations is not considered and there are no specific mechanisms of protection," explains Graca, who has helped draft a specific law on domestic violence. "Once approved, it will be the biggest achievement after ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)," she adds. Graca has high hopes for Timorese women, who also took part, in their own ways, in making Timor what it is today. "I hope they can stay united and speak with one voice regarding their future. They have done it in the past and I hope they can continue to do it," Graca says. After all, Timor Lorosae, the traditional name of the country, means "where the sun rises".

* name has been changed

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