I am in a very unique position as an actor in the rebuilding of a nation. I am without a formal role or job description, but I do what First Ladies do everywhere – support the President, who is also my husband, work hard and advocate for the needs of women, children and their communities. The irony is that although I am without a job this work is expected of me, as it is, indeed, of all women. I recognise this of course but how can I not respond?
My nation is the world’s newest, but it is also old in history and culture. It is one of the poorest with one of the highest infant and maternal mortality rates in the world. The under-five mortality rate is 12 per cent: in other words 12 per cent of children in Timor die before they reach the age of five. Illiteracy rates are extremely high across the board but for women they are over 80 per cent. Poverty and malnutrition is widespread. Our annual budget is roughly $100 million dollars.
So when I say I don’t have a job description, these facts provide one for me. My work is clear – given the country’s statistics, you won’t be surprised to know that my First Lady role is not financially supported. It has no budget. The little support I have generously comes from friends and countries like Thailand – themselves not wealthy, but certainly more so than Timor Leste.
But what I do have is a commitment to empowering women. What I do have is influence. And also a voice. And I use all three to give voice to tens of thousands of women who do not have one, to get them heard and heard at the seat of decision making. In a world currently seized with the issue of security I don’t see many women speaking or involved in such debates. We have wars raging around us, and it is still the men making the war – and, ironically, making the peace.
We need to become part of this debate, and despite all of the commitments to inclusion of women in such processes we are, effectively, missing in action. Through this project, Women in International Secutiry Australia, which I hope to emulate in Timor Leste, we can become part of the action. We know about security as women have so very little of it. We want human security in our public and private lives, and we have to be far more vocal to make sure we get it.
Women in Timor Leste, or East Timor, as it is affectionately known, have lived through the worst and survived, and I am honoured to be the Fist Lady. It is a truly humbling experience. I pay tribute to them, to the women of my new homeland, and hope I can honour them by helping to make their lives a bit more secure.
My theme is a necessity then: Women, War, Peace. We can’t make peace unless we deal with war. This title has resonance for the women of Timor Leste and significance to me, and to all women. In 2002 independent experts Elisabeth Rehn and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, commissioned by UNIFEM Executive Director Noeleen Heyzer, published a most telling and instructive report of this title. Their brief was to assess the impact of armed conflict on women and women’s role in peace building. In so doing, they travelled to 14 countries – East Timor was one of them.
Their findings were both not surprising, yet deeply alarming. They said they were “appalled by reports of flagrant violation against women by those with a duty to protect them”. I have to say that one of my Alola Foundation Directors, Helena was a member of the independent experts Advisory Group. Helena is Timor Leste’s UNIFEM’s Country Director.
One excerpt that is most telling and encapsulates well the shared experience of women is the following one:
The extreme violence that women suffer during conflict does not arise solely out of the conditions of war. It is directly related to the violence which exists in women’s lives during peace time.
This is the hub of the issue regarding women and security. We can talk about it in the current context of a world seized with this issue. But we have to understand that women’s lives are insecure in times of war and certainly, and tragically, in times of peace.
So any response to women and security must recognise the experience of women. What is most instructive about the report, though, is that it has 22 recommendations. Further, I will recommend a course of action for us to take regarding their implementation.
This is an edited version of a speech given to the
Women in International Security Conference, held by the Research Institute for Asia & the Pacific in Sydney on 20 April 2004.