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Subject: First Dili Women's Conference
Date: Mon, 23 Nov 1998 19:00:23 +0930
From: Rob Wesley-Smith <> Organization: Australians for a Free East Timor (AFFET) /Troppo Rural Consulting

A historic event occurred in Dili on the 9th and 10th of November 1998 - the inaugural East Timorese Women's Conference.

A report by Jude 23 November 1998

The Student Solidarity Council (SCC) based in Dili are a forward looking group which, in the present post-Suharto climate of Reformasi, is pushing away the barriers of a society in prison. After their success with their Student Dialogues, their next inspiration was the Women's' conference which was sponsored by Grupo Feto Fonsae Timor Lorosae (GFFTL) - the young women's group in the SCC. The idea was that women have a chance to develop themselves and to participate more in policy.

No year- long planning for this conference. They quickly found funding from NGOs, and support from Fokupers (Forum Kommunikas Perempuan or Women's Communication Forum) and OMT (a women's clandestine group in existence for many years). In a country where postal communication and phones are scarce, students went out to their home towns to invite women to attend. They told me that people reacted very well. Some women were too frightened to come in case they got into trouble with the military on their return. But of the 300-400 invited, 200 attended over the two day conference. Women from Maliana, Suai, Liquica, Ermera, Same, Ainaro, Aileu, Lospalos, Viqueque, Bacau and Manatuto were accommodated on the floor at the two basic houses rented by the SCC. I was told by the organisers that all the women who came had one idea - self determination.

The conference stage was draped with a large banner painted with "Conferencia Loron Rua Kona Sa Lalaok Feto Timor Lorosae". (Today's conference is on the Image of Timorese Women). The main thrust of the conference was the opportunity to discuss what had happened to women over the last 23 years. One of the women opening the conference had been imprisoned for years for working with the clandestine front and being opposed to the Indonesian military. She quoted from James Dunn book: "The Timorese are born in fear, live in fear and die in fear".

To my western eyes, the sight of a male representative then cutting the ribbon to open the conference was slightly jarring. To the Timorese women, it was natural. They are not angry with their men, they are angry with the invaders. Another contrast to a typical Western women's conference was that all sessions started and ended with prayers as well as ending with melodious singing. It gave the conference a spiritual presence and power. There were a few Carmelite nuns in attendance and it was good to see them showing sisterhood in a country where nuns are held in the highest respect.

The first speaker was Domingas Alves, the director of Fokupers (Forum Kommunikas Perempuan or Women's Communication Forum). Her husband has been in jail in Java since the Dili massacre in 1991. He was accused of being one of the organisers of the procession to Santa Cruz cemetery. She spoke passionately and at length of the violence that women had suffered because of the military and of the important role women played in working in the clandestine and helping the guerrillas.

The second speaker was Milena Pires. She left East Timor in 1975 for Portugal. She now works for the Catholic Institute of International Relations in Britain. She has organised support for the SCC and GFFTL and for two of the student leaders' travel to Portugal and London for leadership training. Her session was on sharing experiences, feelings and ideas from the last 23 years.

Women told stories in public for the first time. They spoke in Tetun, Portuguese, bahasa Indonesia and a little English. Stories of rape by the military. Stories of women having children to soldiers who never helped with the raising of the children and left to return to their wives in Indonesia. Stories of the widow's near Viqueque village where there are no men left - they were all killed between 1980 and 1983.

A women spoke of widespread polygamy. Of men going off to another woman and neglecting their first family. (If a woman has two husbands she is "rubbish"). If the men go to the jungles to fight and leave their families that is hard too, but the women can accept that. Women told how difficult life is with no husband. There is no money to educate the children so they have no future. One woman told how she had been raped at 17 in front of her mother. The mother was told she would be killed if she protested. There were many more stories that I couldn't understand.

One of the Australian women present at the conference was inspired by the women's stories and spent the rest of her time in East Timor collecting women's oral histories of their experiences over the last 23 years. Women were very keen to share their stories with her. These will be interwoven with stories of East Timorese women activists and printed in both English and Tetun early in 1999.

Aureliano Freitas, a lecturer in the department of Planning at the University, spoke of women not being given as much opportunity as boys to go to school. He asked the organisers to visit the villages and explain why it is important for women to go to school.

Olandina Cairo, a PDI member of the PDR (People's Assembly in East Timor), and on the National Committee Against Violence Against Women, talked about discrimination from men, how men lie to women, how women are physically weaker. She then spoke about how women must take every opportunity to develop all aspects of themselves, including politically and economically.

The women were very pleased to have four Australian women attending the conference. Our views were important to them and they have an enormous desire for the outside world to know how they are suffering. "Tell your government what is happening here. Tell them to make the Indonesians leave." They asked me, Vacy, an activist from the East Timorese Justice Lobby in Sydney, and Fiona, a Ph.D. student from Canberra researching Timorese youth in the Australian diaspora, to talk on the second day. We found ourselves on the stage with a male moderator and male interpreters telling our western feminist points of view. (My interpreter at the conference had difficulty in translating the word feminist).

The audience applauded when Vacy told them of the efforts to make rape an internationally recognised war crime. She also stressed how important it was that they tell their stories. Fiona, in bahasa Indonesia, spoke of her research. I told them what had happened in Australia since my first women's conference in 1975. They clapped on hearing of the anti-discrimination laws, but also clapped on hearing of my Timorese friend in Darwin saying she would have had more than 2 children if she was still in East Timor because there is a custom of more extended family support.

In question time, they asked whether the Timorese women outside remembered them and what was happening in Timor. I told them of Veronica Pereira in Darwin who had woven 6 long tais with the names of 271 people killed in the Dili massacre. And of Maria do Ceu Lopes Federer who with her husband had set up ETISC, (East Timor International Support Centre), which had helped fund this conference. I also told them of Cesarina who, as a baby, had sailed to Darwin in 1975 with her family to escape the attempted coup, had grown up in an apolitical household, but who as a young student found herself drawn into activism on East Timor. They applauded.

Lefi from FORTILOS, an Indonesian organisation which supports self determination for East Timor, spoke next. The women were suspicious of this Indonesian male at first but by the end of his talk were won over. He told them that fighting for women's rights will help bring social and political changes to East Timor.

Olandina was asked later about her views of the conference. She thought it was important because it was the first time that many women from all over East Timor were able to unite and the first time in 23 years that women have been able to speak out courageously of their experiences. Also it was a chance for women inside to talk with women from outside who work on East Timor. She felt "hearing about Veronica and Ceu and Cesarina gives us women more courage, and without the conference that wouldn't have happened".

For me, the conference was a chance to meet some special East Timorese women, to hear about their stories, and to understand how important it is for the women here in East Timor to know that their stories of suffering are heard by the outside world, and also for them to know that the East Timorese women in the diaspora are remembering them and fighting for their freedom.

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