Subject: Women in East Timor Unite in the Fight for Justice and Equality

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Women in East Timor Unite in the Fight for Justice and Equality

By Ramona Vijeyarasa Created Apr 29 2009 - 7:00am

Nearly 350 women gathered together in the lead-up to the International Women's Day for the Second International "Women for Peace Conference" from March 4-6 in East Timor to talk about the role women can play "as creative agents for peace." The First International Conference, which was organized by the Government of Norway and the University of Indonesia in April 2007, discussed women's global challenges. In the words of Eva Tuft, the Norwegian Chargé d'Affairs: "We called it the first because we did not want it to end there," and it certainly did not. Drawing together women from Papua New Guinea, Angola, Australia, Ireland, Germany, the US, Canada, Portugal, Norway, and Indonesia and a large crowd of passionate and strong East Timorese women, the Second International Conference saw the sharing of ideas and stories, some very personal, the shedding of tears and lighting of candles and at times some divisive debate on issues like abortion for victims of rape and incest.

The injustices suffered by women across the globe led us to devote most of our time to the discussions about justice for women survivors of war, justice for survivors of gender-based violence and the need to stop domestic violence and rape against women. However, the words of East Timor's Prime Minister (and former President) Xanana Gusmao reminded us to look beyond the wrongs: "When we talk about the rights of women, these are human rights. We normally talk about human right as being violated but we need to start talking about these rights as obligations" (oral translation from Tetum).

Among the very rich discussions, one that peaked my interest was the session devoted to the impact of culture and religion on women's rights, with a particular focus on reproductive rights. Madalena Hanjam Leste, Deputy Minister for Health of the Government of Timor, started her presentation by citing the definition of health in the Constitution of the World Health Organization: "Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity." She highlighted the importance of women being guaranteed safety, autonomy and choice. In her view, the institutional challenge for East Timor is increasing the value given to women's voice; ensuring women have access to decision-making; and prioritizing women's health throughout the life cycle. She admitted that reproductive health in East Timor is insecure, with only 37 per cent of births attended by skilled health professionals and 20 to 42 per cent of pregnant women undernourished and anemic.

Her co-speaker, Bishop Gunnar Stålsett, the Special Envoy of Norway to Timor, also advocated for the need to enhance the capacities of religious leaders to monitor laws and fight against all forms of rape and violence against women. When asked about the sometimes-oppressive role of the church when it comes to women's rights, Bishop Stålsett responded, "The discussion needs to be open and free in every society. The church has sometimes stood against the freedom and equality of women. It is important to raise the issues and rise above taboos."

In a predominantly Catholic community, with a strong presence and involvement of the Catholic Church, it was unsurprising that the issue of abortion was highly controversial and created heated debates. It unfortunately broke some of the solidarity that had been achieved over the three days amongst the women participants of diverse national, religious and ethnic backgrounds.

Both Indonesian activist Gadis Arivia, and Maria Barreto, of the Timorese NGO Fokupers (The East Timorese Women's Communication Forum), also raised the issue of abortion in their respective countries. In Indonesia, 2.3 million women each year have an abortion because access to contraception is significantly limited. In East Timor, despite increasing recognition of the importance of women's empowerment and gender equality for the development of the country, women who fall pregnant as a result of incest and rape do not have access to safe and legal abortions. Advocates continue to push for change and a group of Timorese women attending the conference went before the East Timor Council of Ministers on March 6 to argue that the exception for abortion in cases of rape, currently in the draft penal code, should be kept. Alarmingly, in light of the backlash and pressure from the clergy, this exception may be removed from the final version.

Yet, a consensus was almost reached on a number of key recommendations, including completely implementing CEDAW and the other human rights treaties that the Government of East Timor has signed, putting an end to rape, torture and other forms of violence against girls and eliminating all laws that discriminate against women.

Timorese women certainly have the courage and passion to fight for their rights and voice their grievances. What is clearly lacking, however, is the space, particularly political space to do so. We will have to wait to see in particular how much this momentous meeting has given Timorese women more space and the creative tools to push for their right to choose and protect their own lives and health. At the same time, though far away from most readers, the conference recommendations included a valuable call for action to all of us: "We need to strengthen networking among women internationally in the fight for justice, to support victims to speak out, and to find creative solutions for holding human rights violators accountable."

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