Subject: GLW: Women fight an uphill battle

Green Left Weekly, Issue #430 November 29, 2000

EAST TIMOR: Women fight an uphill battle


DILI - Five women considered to be "indecently" dressed were chased by a mob of mainly young men near the Mercado Lama (Central Market) here on November 10. Four managed to hide in an NGO-run clinic which was then stoned by the mob. Another was dragged by the mob to UN Civilian Police Headquarters. A Civpol officer from Nepal, who tried to protect the women was hit by rock and required five stitches.

Accounts vary about what the women were actually wearing, but why should attire provoke such behaviour? And what does this incident tell us about the status of women in East Timor?

Because of their dress, the women were accused of being prostitutes. In a report of the incident, Associated Press commented that prostitution is believed to have increased as a result of the UN presence.

The Timor Post ran extensive quotes from a Civpol spokesperson who said that although a women's dress should have no bearing on the kind of person she is, the incident reminds young women to take care about their appearance, inferring that otherwise they would be mistaken for prostitutes. The article also indicated that the women were intending to sue the perpetrators for assault and sexual harassment.

One Sunday at a popular Dili beach frequented by locals and foreigners, with two bikini-clad foreigners barely 50 metres away, a mob of 20 youths jumped off a pick-up truck and tried to force me to "get dressed" or they threatened a samurai or to "bathe" me in the ocean.

I was wearing a bikini top and a long sarong. They quoted Bishop Belo who allegedly said that "These things were communist". The two bikini-wearing, sunbathing foreign women were not harassed. But the youths thought I was Timorese and that they had a duty to protect the morality of "their" women and society.

The East Timorese Women's Network, Rede Feto, unites 15 women's organisations and organised a women's congress last June. But given the strong influence of the Catholic Church and the very underdeveloped economic conditions which have a direct bearing on women's status, such organisations are fighting an uphill struggle for women's rights.

In East Timor, under customary law, women cannot inherit or own property. As Maria Olandina Cairo, head of Timorese women's organisation ETWAVE (East Timor Women against Violence) said at a human rights workshop here last August, this practice is highly discriminatory as it makes it impossible for women to be economically independent of their male partners. Economic independence is key to the possibility of women liberating themselves.

Under customary law in a practice called barlaque, a woman is bought as a bride. After protracted negotiations between two families, the bridal price is set. Depending on the woman's background and social standing, the price may range from 30 buffaloes, 20 horses, various other animals, gold jewellery and traditional cloth (tais) for a "princess" in a subdistrict of Los Palos to cash sums in the increasingly modern world of Dili. Apparently it is not uncommon for men to say, "I have bought you and therefore you have to obey me".

FOKUPERS, a prominent women's organisation in East Timor, has set up a women and children's shelter for victims of domestic violence and incest. They also publish a newsletter called Babadok (named after the traditional drum played by women), which educates women on their rights and gives advice to the survivors.

FOKUPERS recently supported a woman in her divorce proceedings, successfully arguing that her husband had not provided for the family. This is still the strongest grounds for divorce in East Timor.

The influence of the Catholic Church is especially strong. Bishop Belo, in a letter to NGOs and health authorities working on HIV/AIDS awareness programs, said he considers it inappropriate for these organisations to discuss the use of contraceptives.

One woman activist told me that under Indonesian rule there were some HIV/AIDS awareness programs run by the occupiers, whereas now there are very few. She added that there is very little informative discussion of sex and sexuality, which in a country made up predominantly of young people is a recipe for disaster.

ETAN Religious Section

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