Subject: AGE: First lady fights for her country torn

The Age

First lady fights for her country torn

By Tom Hyland

March 12, 2006

Freedom's won, but a new battle confronts East Timorese women.

OUTSIDE, the autumn sun glistens on the Yarra. Inside the swish restaurant at Federation Square there's the clink of cutlery as hundreds of Melbourne women lawyers listen to a lunchtime speech by the woman who is billed to speak on her life, "from Melbourne arts student to the first lady of East Timor".

Kirsty Sword Gusmao, wife of East Timor's President Xanana Gusmao, tells the gathering that a profound sense of anger over an injustice compelled her to join East Timor's fight for independence.

But she's not here to reminisce about her undercover role in winning that fight.

She is here to raise money and awareness about East Timor's new battle. It might be free, but it's the poorest country in the Asia-Pacific region and it's getting poorer.

Ms Sword Gusmao silences the clink of cutlery when she tells what that poverty means. In East Timor 800 out of every 100,000 women die in childbirth. New UN figures show 88 out of every 1000 babies die at birth (the equivalent Australian figure is about four). A third of women suffer malnutrition. Only 8 per cent have access to contraception.

She tells how the director of Dili's main hospital complains his staff are ripping up sheets to give mothers something to wrap their babies in. When women leave hospital with their babies their departure is often marked by a trail of blood, as they can't afford sanitary napkins.

In 2001 Ms Sword Gusmao helped set up the Alola Foundation, which she now chairs and which aims to improve the lot of East Timor's women.

Alola is the nickname of Juliana dos Santos, who was kidnapped, at age 15, by a notorious militia leader after the 1999 vote for independence and taken as a "war trophy" to Indonesian West Timor, where she remains today.

Her story has served to personalise the plight of East Timorese who have been taken to Indonesia and are unable to return home. The extent of such separations was revealed in The Sunday Age last month.

Ms Sword Gusmao has taken up Juliana's case, lobbying Indonesian officials for her return and helping her family establish contact with her. If she is allowed back it will offer hope for other families torn apart during East Timor's upheaval.

But, Ms Sword Gusmao tells The Sunday Age, the obstacles are many. Violence and intimidation mean Juliana is in no position to make a free choice.

There are other obstacles, too, in reuniting families, including a lack of resources on East Timor's part and, perhaps, a lack of will on the part of Indonesia. On this issue Ms Sword Gusmao is diplomatic. "I'd like to think we'd be able to reach a solution to this with the co-operation of the Indonesian authorities," she says.

"But … given the very complex psychological aspects of this problem and the intimidation and coercion aspects of it, I don't think there's been an adequate recognition from the Indonesian side that she's a young woman unable to make a free decision."

She says the issue of divided families is on the agenda of both countries. But she is cautious: "We have some concerns that this is not on the top of the priority list for Indonesia … I'd like to think it's not a case of indifference."

Back to March menu
February menu     
World Leaders Contact List
Main Postings Menu