Subject: GLW: Women face uphill struggle

TITLE: Women face uphill struggle SOURCE: Green Left Weekly - January 24, 2001

Robyn Marshall, Dili -- Aurora Ximenes, the coordinator of the East Timor Women's Network, which comprises 15 grassroots organisations, is angry that women are being sidelined in the transition to independence.

Listening to her story, it seems that the problems the network faces typify the problems which have faced most Timorese political organisations since the country came under the mandate of the United Nations.

Formed in March, the network held a two-day congress in June in which 500 women participated. Given the difficulties, including a severe lack of resources and funding together with women's low status in society, the congress was an important step forward.

Among the Women's Network's first efforts was an attempt to ensure representation of women on the country's National Council, a 34 member advisory body to the United Nations Transitional Authority in East Timor.

While UNTAET head Sergio de Mello has the power to ignore all advice, veto any decision and unilaterally implement any policy, the National Council is supposed to represent a cross-section of East Timorese political opinion.

When UNTAET encouraged nominations from women, a network meeting in September nominated three it felt adequately represented its opinions. All three Women's Network nominees had roots in their communities and had all been fighting for 24 years against Indonesia's occupation.

But, in its October 23 announcement of the National Council's make-up, UNTAET ignored all three nominations and co-opted an expatriate, Milena Perez, who has lived overseas for most of her life but speaks English and Portuguese. The Women's Network says it has no quarrel with Perez personally but says she does not represent any women's organisation.

The Women's Network is protesting the mechanism by which the selection was made and is trying to get an explanation of the selection process. As Ximenes told Green Left Weekly, "UNTAET is always talking about the `Timorisation' of the administration but the administrator always has the final say".

"It is very difficult for us, as all decisions are made at the top and we only hear about it after the decision is made". Ximenes explains that the movement's biggest priority is to tackle women's lack of skills. The vast majority of women speak Indonesian and the indigenous language, Tetum, but find it almost impossible to take on leadership positions without English and Portuguese.

Women's organisations are tackling enormous issues, including calling for laws against domestic and public violence, rape, economic discrimination and for a literacy campaign. One organisation, ETWAVE, East Timorese Women against Violence, gives assistance to women facing domestic violence. Many women raped by the Indonesian armed forces couldn't get abortions, resulting in many orphans and abandoned children.

Another group, Ermera, which deals with women's health, seeks to educate the public about HIV-AIDS, a latent problem waiting to explode. There are also many problems associated with the use of IUDs, with not enough doctors available to carry out regular check-ups.

Many women are widows, whose husbands died in the war or were killed in the mountains and who now have to raise their children without economic support.

One case women's organisations are taking up involves widows whose husbands were local staff employed by the United Nations killed during the referendum campaign. The UN has so far refused to pay them any compensation.

I was told of another woman, who has 12 children and whose husband was murdered by the militia -- she also could get no support from UNTAET.

Another case involves widows and orphans from the OPMT, the Timorese Women's Popular Organisation, who recently met with international donor organisations only to be told that they couldn't be helped because they were affiliated with the leftist political party, Fretilin.

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