Subject: OPMT's response to Kirsty Sword Gusmao


Response to Ms Kirsty Gusmão's opinion in The Australian of 7 July 2006

Dear editor,

We, the undersigned Women of our proud independent nation of Timor-Leste would like to respond to the opinion of Ms Kirsty Sword Gusmão in the Australian newspaper of 7 July 2006.

Though we have points of agreement with her on the role and status of women in our country, we also have many points of departure with what we regard as a simplistic depiction from her in that opinion piece with regard to what has been and will continue to be a very complex and involved process for all us women.

We are women who have been involved for decades in our national struggle, we are also women of Fretilin and are proud of that fact and the role we have played in our institutions towards the process of peace building and reconciliation in our nation.

If the current crisis is one as Ms Sword says of "Timor Woman, once again a victim of the excesses and ambition of men" then we say that this is yet to be proven as to which men's excesses and whose ambitions have been the cause, and that can only be reached through the due process of justice, though history will also be telling as a judge in this regard. The process is not comple1e yet and our justice, democratic and constitutional institutions must continue to move forward to find solutions for these challenges for peace and reconciliation in our mind. We will always play a part in this process.

We represent women whose dream for independence began more than three decades ago, and as such we will not easily let go of our dream to consolidate our national independence, our national sovereignty and create a just and equitable society for all. We were there in the jungles and the mountains and struggled daily in our lives with an occupying enemy to ultimately win our independence. Many like Vice Minister for State Administration, Ilda da Conceição, lost their beloved husbands, and our beloved brother Kilik., in this struggle. We were there when blood was spilt. We were there when the last breath expired for our comrades. We have paid the personal price of war and do not want it to return to our beloved nation.

But mostly we have been here in the process of policy formulation and legislation which ensured woman is proportionally represented in our parliament and our public consultation bodies. Yes we are also women of Fretilin and it has been Fretihin as a political party through its substantive majority representation which ensured that we have the impressively high number of MPs in our national parliament" as Ms Sword states, and which ensured the passage of vital legislation to promote and advance the status of women. Yes it was the Alkatiri government with two women occupying two out of the first four top ranking ministerial posts, including the vital Ministry of Planning and Finance, which has both a Minister and a Deputy Minister who are both women., which undertook wide public consultation and approved sent to parliament a anti-domestic violence law which has been wide acclaim, as well as many other measures that ensure access by to services and opportunities.

But there have been many more women involved in this process we are proud of, not just from Fretilin, but from other parties and organisations who worked together with us on ensuring we attain more rights for women in this country.

The status of women in our country has indeed come a long way in even these four short years since the restoration of independence, but many strides were made during the period of the struggle, specially in the liberated areas during the Indonesian occupation. We bring these experiences and these advances with us to struggle for more justice and more equity. The forces of oppression of Timor-Leste women though are complex and emanate from a range of institutions in our society and many deep seated cultural and social norms. These will take time to eradicate and ameliorate so that women can truly become liberated in our country. The process for dealing with these institutions and social and cultural norms have been ongoing and the results are in the policies and laws enacted, in areas such as health care and health rights, domestic violence, the criminal code and access to education. The challenges in dealing with these have also been great and aroused many and strong politically sensitivities which have affected Prime Minister Alkatiri and his government. Not all Timorese or national institutions are as receptive to improving the status of women as we are committed to.

All of us undersigned are not just women with our constitutional and democratic responsibilities, we are also Internally Displaced Persons. It has been our homes which have been burnt or ransacked, we and our families who have been threatened for the positions we occupy and our political affiliations, and our lives which have been displaced, whilst we continue to engage in the process of upholding our democratic and constitutional institutions to ensure they "continue to function effectively"; keeping the public expenditure process effectively functioning so as the delivery of health and other social services continue undisrupted; to ensure that our parliament continues to voice the aspirations of our people for a peaceful, democratic, constitutional and just resolution to the crisis our nation finds itself in; to continue to care for families and our communities who depend on us; but most of all through our democratic process and the communities we live with and dialogue with everyday during these very difficult times, we continue the process to achieve the peaceful and just ends we all share; whilst still continuing to struggle to improve the status of women we began many years ago with our fallen comrades. Our strength comes from our ordinariness, from our everyday lives and experiences in our communities, from being threatened and persecuted as well as being uplifted to serve and deliver to our communities in these times of need, because at the end of the day we have to go back, eat and sleep them.

We value our communities and our democratic and constitutional institutions as essential to the process of establishing just and equitable outcomes from this crisis, not by abandoning them or trampling on them. We all have a ole to play, all women, all citizens of Timor-Leste. We are all not only well placed but have an obligation to participate in the process of nation building, peace building, reconciliation. Though we do not think it is neither telling nor significant that a single Timorese woman has not solicited an audience with the President of the Republic (though we believe that some have sought and obtained such an audience), we believe that women have put their view to him a as they have to the Prime Minister/other Ministers, the Judiciary and to the Parliament, the other democratic institutions we have to uphold the values of our state and our constitution. Our colleague Senior Minister of State Administration Ana Pessoa was part of a Fretilin delegation who had sought to meet the President of the Republic as early as two weeks ago and was eventually able to meet with him yesterday. The President of the Parliament solicited the President of the Republic to come and address the parliament and did so on the 14th June 2006 an audience sought h the parliament which included many women, so as to advance the process of a peaceful and just outcome to this crisis. The President of the Republic and other state dignitaries participated in the swearing of our Judges, Prosecutor and Public Defenders who are playing a critical role in this process on the 3rd of June 2006 during which intern judge Maria Natércia Guterres articulated her aspirations for a just and equitable resolution of the crisis in accordance with the rule of law on behalf of her colleagues.

We value the role all of these Timor-Leste women have played in this process and will always struggle to promote their status so that women play the role they justly and equitably deserve in all aspects and all institutions of our society, beyond what we have achieved to date. We firmly believe though that this is done by being ingrained in the political and democratic process and not by single audiences with the President of the Republic or the Prime Minister or whomever. Many women also demonstrated during the recent numerous and peaceful demonstration to support Fretilin and its government which also delivered a letter to the President expressing their views on the peaceful and just resolution of this crisis. Similarly last week, many women made their views very clear and forcefully to the President of the Republic when he visited the FFDTL training Centre at Metinaro where many of us are IDPs.

Only by continuing to be involved through these processes will we ever attain the universally recognised and enshrined just and equitable status for the women of Timor-Leste. We are confident in the belief that women accompany us every step of the way in our struggle, as do the spirits of our fallen women comrades.

Dili, 08 July 2006


1. Lurdes Alves Araújo 2. Aurora Ximenes 3. Josefa A. Soares 4. Cristina Alves S. 5. Ilda Maria da C. 6. Florentina M. Smith 7. Aicha Bassarewan 8. Rosária Corte-Real 9. Amelia Pinto Soares 10. Mariquita Soares 11. Cidália Lopes N. M. G. 12. Maria Solana Fernandes 13. Maria Maia Réis

The Australian - Opinion

Kirsty Sword Gusmao: Women suffering in silence

All voices need to be heard in rebuilding East Timor, writes Kirsty Sword Gusmao

July 07, 2006

Timor woman Manacled by your misery Timor woman Your spirit bound in servitude

SO wrote my husband, East Timor President Xanana Gusmao, in a poem about women's experience of the 24-year war of resistance to Indonesian rule. As tens of thousands of East Timorese women struggle to take care of their families in Internally Displaced Persons camps across Dili, these words assume a new and tragic poignancy. Timor woman, once again a victim of the excesses and ambitions of men; Timor woman, once again widowed by a conflict not of her own making.

In speeches delivered to various conferences in Australia over the past year, I have made extensive reference to the significant gains made for women at the level of political participation and formal recognition of women's rights over the past four years since East Timor's independence.

An impressively high number of MPs in our national parliament are women. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and its optional protocol was acceded to by our government within months of achieving independence, a draft of domestic violence legislation is on the verge of becoming law and a quota for women in suco or village-level councils was agreed upon last year.

And yet, it is sad and disturbing to note that, in a time of crisis and conflict such as East Timor is presently experiencing, the platforms that women have managed to acquire seem to come crashing down, their voices drowned out by the din of the political clamourings of male leaders and the roar of the machinery of a peace-keeping operation directed and driven by men.

They did manage to speak out briefly but strongly for peace on June 1 when about 100 women and children staged an action for peace in the courtyard of the Palace of the Government, to demand the restoration of law and order and to warn their leaders that they would not vote in the next elections for any individual or party that is not responsive to the aspirations of women and children.

Just over a week ago, with the prime minister on the verge of announcing his resignation and facing serious allegations of weapons distribution, a handful of male cabinet ministers began weighing up whether to tender their resignations. However, it was a brave East Timorese woman, Maria Domingas Alves, alias "Micato", former adviser to the prime minister on gender equality, who took the step first, citing reasons of being unable to serve the women of East Timor within a government "which no longer functions effectively".

It is telling that not a single East Timorese woman has solicited an audience with my husband nor has had her views sought on solutions to the crisis over the past few weeks. It has not been a deliberate act of exclusion, it just hasn't occurred to anyone in this intensely patriarchal society that women may have something important and useful to contribute to the delicate and vital processes of disarmament, reconciliation and peace-building.

At the same time a disproportionate burden of responsibility for mopping up the mess left by the conflict falls on the shoulders of women: the mothers struggling to provide their families with shelter, security, food and other basic needs in crowded IDP camps, the tireless Catholic sisters of various religious orders who, with no permanent security provided by the international forces and with limited resources, have opened the doors of their convents and colleges to many thousands of hungry and traumatised displaced people.

Women are uniquely placed to build peace and security, after all they value peace as the foundation for the survival of their families and communities, as the basic precondition for their children's education and prosperity. That they are virtually absent from discussions relating to East Timor's political future, reform of the security sector and negotiation of the mandate of a new UN mission in the country highlights the sad fact that women of East Timor have a long way to go in achieving their rights as equal and valued citizens of their new nation.

Security Council Resolution 1325 mandates UN member states and UN missions to be cognisant of the rights and special needs of women at times of war and conflict, and in efforts to restore peace and foster reconciliation. The Terms of Reference for the UN Needs Assessment mission presently visiting East Timor includes provision for a "gender dimensions" sectoral cluster that acknowledges the importance of hearing what women want from the fourth UN mission.

But since it sits alongside, rather than across, the other clusters, including security, governance, reform of the Timorese Defence Force and rule of law, I wonder whether its findings will be relegated to a footnote by the time the new UN mission is mandated. And more importantly whether the hopes and dreams of the "ordinary" girls and women of East Timor are reflected in this document and translated into concrete measures and commitments - by the UN and our new Government - to ensure that never again is the fear, violence and pain of the past months visited on the long-suffering women of East Timor.

Timor woman, my heart bleeds for you, my respect abounds for you.

Kirsty Sword Gusmao is the first lady of the Democratic Republic of East Timor and chairwoman of the Alola Foundation in Dili.

see Women and East Timor page

Back to July menu 
World Leaders Contact List
Main Postings Menu