Subject: SMH: Women and children first (Kirsty Sword Gusmao)

Women and children first

November 11, 2006

It is the young and most vulnerable who have suffered the most from East Timor's unrest, writes Kirsty Sword Gusmao.

ROSALINA XIMENES'S eyes were downcast as I leaned forward to kiss her lightly on both cheeks. I caught the smoky scent of the firewood she had used to cook her last meal as I pressed the envelope of money into her hand.

Rosalina was surrounded by her six children and a gathering of curious onlookers. The grimy face of her second youngest child, Arris, betrayed fear at the sight of me, but none of the horror and pain to which his mother had been subjected since the murder of her husband.

Paulo da Costa was one of a group of policemen gunned down with weapons belonging to East Timor's army on May 25. The money and material assistance I had to offer seemed inconsequential in the face of the magnitude of Rosalina's loss.

When she and her children finally leave this refugee camp - a once tranquil and pristine convent that is still home to 1300 displaced people - they have no house to return to.

Rosalina is one of the women widowed by the recent conflict. In my capacity as the wife of the President, I have distributed money gathered by a Rotary Club and a group of surgeons in Adelaide, and established a scholarship fund to guarantee that, at the very least, the women's children will receive an education.

Like the 140,000 internally displaced people facing months of hunger and boredom in the dusty, overcrowded camps spread across Dili, these women are innocent victims of a dangerous conflict not of their making, which is to a large extent incomprehensible to them.

So what went wrong? On the surface, all was proceeding so well with the nation-building process. East Timor was held up by the United Nations and many donor nations as the post-conflict success story so anxiously awaited by the rich, aid-giving countries of the world. Its first four years as an independent nation were marked by the establishment of all the major institutions of state and, importantly, by political stability and peace.

These are no minor achievements. The country was almost totally destroyed by the Indonesian military and its militias in 1999. The people carried deep psychological scars as a result of 25 years of political violence. There was an exceedingly low human resource base, particularly at the level of middle and senior management. Members of the clandestine resistance movement - some fresh out of university, others newly released from Indonesian jails - became members of parliament, government officials, even senior department heads. The learning curves were brutally sharp.

Four years is a short time to overturn and redress this legacy. Nobody expected the government of Mari Alkatiri to work miracles. My husband, Xanana Gusmao, made regular and consistent appeals to the people throughout the early period of independence to have patience and understand the arduous process of nation-building being undertaken.

By early this year, however, frustration at the slow pace of development, the concentration of government spending and resources in Dili, reports of widespread corruption, and what most people perceived to be the unresponsiveness - even arrogance - of the government in the face of worsening poverty was coming to a head. Families who, in Indonesian times, had been able to buy seeds to plant home gardens in order to stave off hunger and malnutrition, found they could no longer do so, due to widespread unemployment and the adoption of the US dollar as the nation's currency.

I was roundly criticised in some circles in Australia and elsewhere for commenting in the Australian media on the worsening crisis unfolding around me in May: the wife of a president is not expected to have opinions and certainly not to express them on issues of a political nature, even when these issues impact dramatically on her life, the life of her family and the lives of the women with whom she engages every day.

A reflection on what it means to be the first lady of the world's newest nation inevitably leads me to an analysis of the status of women in East Timor and some of the efforts that I, my Alola Foundation and the women's movement in this country are making to elevate that status and to create the conditions for a healthier, more dignified life for our sisters - who are among the poorest in our region.

Discussion of each of these issues highlights a significant gap between ideals, public perception, the goals we strive to achieve and the reality of women's lives.

THE women of East Timor live in deep poverty. More than half of them are illiterate and struggle to heal the wounds of 25 years of a brutal military occupation. Low social status, associated with cultural and religious norms, and an entrenched patriarchy add insult to their injury.

The Alola Foundation's work on maternal and child health, education and economic empowerment has developed in parallel with the slow and painful process of nation building. There have been some significant gains for women in political participation. The national parliament has 23 women MPs out of a total of 87, one of the highest levels of female representation in South-East Asia - the result of some strenuous lobbying of party leaders by the UN and women activists. Women also hold positions of power in the council of ministers, and lead the finance and planning, state administration and education ministries.

Despite these modest gains, the women's movement has learnt that having encouraging numbers in the legislature, and some positions of power in the executive arm of government, does not necessarily mean a shift in acceptance. A great many women parliamentarians report that they feel ill-equipped, both technically and in terms of experience, to be effective as legislators and representatives of their constituencies. They also claim to face discrimination and prejudice, and struggle to combine public duties with motherhood and onerous family obligations. The recruitment of the sub-district administrators by the first constitutional government produced only one woman out of a total of 65.

A moment of crisis is, it would seem, a moment of truth. The gains over the previous four years almost evaporated with the onset of violence in late May. In the face of physical danger and political upheaval, women were again relegated to the roles of caregivers and victims.

It is telling that not a single East Timorese woman solicited an audience with my husband, or had her views sought, on solutions to the crisis at the height of the turmoil. It wasn't a deliberate act of exclusion. It just didn't occur to anyone, in this intensely patriarchal society, that women may have something important and useful to contribute to the delicate and vital processes of disarmament, reconciliation and peace building.

At the same time, a disproportionate burden of responsibility for mopping up the mess left by the conflict has fallen on the shoulders of women: the mothers struggling to provide their families with shelter, security, food and other basic needs in the camps, the tireless Catholic sisters of various religious orders who, with no security provided by the international forces and with limited resources, have opened the doors of their convents and colleges to many thousands of hungry and traumatised displaced people.

Despite that, it was a woman whose political courage and moral outrage ultimately precipitated a revolt within the government that brought a resolution. It was a brave woman, Maria Domingas Alves (alias "Micato"), a former adviser to the prime minister on gender equality, who took the step first. She said she could no longer serve the women of East Timor within a government "which no longer functions effectively".

Six other senior government officials were spurred on by her example and also resigned. Shortly afterwards a new government was formed, and a semblance of peace, if not normalcy, returned.

Women in a country such as East Timor are uniquely placed to build peace and security. They, like no one else, value peace as the foundation for the survival of their families and communities, as the basic precondition for their children's education and prosperity. Yet they are virtually absent from discussions on reform of the security sector and negotiation of the mandate of a new UN mission in the country. This highlights the sad fact that the women of East Timor still have a long way to go to achieve their rights as equal and valued citizens of their new nation.

Australian-born Kirsty Sword Gusmao has lived in East Timor for seven years. This is an edited extract from Griffith Review 14: The Trouble with Paradise (ABC Books, $19.95).

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