Subject: Helping E Timor heal scars of war

The Weekend Australian July 26, 2003

Helping E Timor heal scars of war

Helen Tobler

Indonesia's former colony is truly a ravaged country: 70 per cent of its women were raped. Only 14 mental health workers cope with a traumatised population of 800,000. Helen Tobler reports

THERE is no point having new roads or cures for diseases if the mind is suffering.

Without a healthy mind, people will not have a healthy body.

This is the attitude of East Timorese leaders Xanana Gusmao and Jose Ramos Horta, says Susan Kendall, who has helped set up four mental health programs in the young nation.

Kendall says despite decades of brutal Indonesian occupation, violence and poverty, the people of East Timor are lucky to have a strong sense of community and the healthy attitude of its leaders.

Kendall, co-ordinator of the Northern Sydney Health Sexual Assault Service at Royal North Shore Hospital, has spent 16 months over the past three years in East Timor setting up programs to help victims of violence.

She flew back to East Timor last week to spend two months working there with 15 East Timorese staff.

East Timor, which gained independence in 1999, is a nation that was ruled by violence for 25 years, and where rape was used to subjugate the population.

Its infrastructure is in tatters, unemployment is massive and health conditions are terrible, Kendall says.

"On the other hand there's an incredible sense of optimism," she says.

"There's a sense that we won; we defeated a nation of 250 million people. A nation of 250 million people couldn't stamp us out -- and that's very empowering."

Mental health problems are widespread and stem from the trauma of war, sexual assault and child abuse, yet the nation of 800,000 has only 14 mental health workers.

A shocking 70 per cent of women in East Timor have been raped, Ms Kendall says.

"Seventy per cent of girls are illiterate because families used to keep them home from school to keep them (away) from the Indonesian military."

East Timorese people with severe mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia were dearly loved by their families, but the only way they could be controlled was by putting them in stocks to physically restrain them, she says.

Through mental health programs many people have received treatment with medication, and no longer need to be restrained.

Kendall says myths about mental illness are common in East Timor -- as they are in Australia -- but with a cultural spin. "One of the myths over there is if you've got a mental illness, it's because you've killed a crocodile."

The extended family and the community -- which Australia sorely lacks -- are crucial to combating abuse, she says.

"One of the things I've learnt we've lost is our sense of community, and when you're talking about violence to women and children it's got to come down to the community."

While East Timorese society is patriarchal, the men are just as willing as the women to take part in sexual assault education programs and they don't see sexual assault as only the problem of women.

Ms Kendall has also helped to found a safe room at Dili Hospital for women and children who have suffered abuse, and a program to help young people in prison get safely back into society without suffering retribution from their community.


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