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Women suffering in silence

By Kirsty Sword Gusmao - posted Monday, 10 July 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, and 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.

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First published in The Australian on July 7, 2006.

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About the Author

Kirsty Sword Gusmao is First Lady of East Timor and Founding Director, of the Alola Foundation.

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