Subject: AU: Timor's women of independence
Date: Sat, 07 Aug 1999 10:04:11 -0400
From: "John M. Miller" <>

Received from Joyo Indonesian News:

The Australian 7 August 99

Timor's women of independence

>From SIAN POWELL in Dili

MARIA dos Santos, an open-faced 26-year-old, spends her spare time visiting villages around her home near Baucau, east of Dili, spreading the word about registration and voting for the coming ballot on independence.

She tries to ignore the men from the local militia, Saka, who roar through the villages firing guns in the air. She has already done the rounds of more than 100 families, encouraging them to register.

Soon she will begin round two – trudging kilometres through farmland and jungle, visiting every home again to explain the symbols on the ballot papers and ensuring the villagers know their ballots must be cast on August 30.

She is one of the many women from the Organisation of East Timorese Women, the OMT, who are braving intimidation because they believe passionately that East Timor has a right to decide its future.

"I am an East Timorese woman," Ms dos Santos said, "and I felt called to join the struggle. Even though I am still single, I felt strong enough to take part."

In the west of East Timor, OMT women have led frightened groups of villagers through the jungle, dodging militia checkpoints, and delivering them safely to registration centres. This little-publicised body of women is the female wing of the East Timorese Council for National Resistance, better known as the CNRT, the pivotal independence movement that Alexander Downer visited when he was in East Timor last week.

Like the CNRT, the women's organisation was, until recently, a so-called clandestine operation, and all its energies were spent raising funds for Falantil and supplying the freedom fighters with food, clothes and ammunition.

With the arrival of the UN in East Timor, the women of OMT turned to politics, and have fanned out into the villages in a highly organised fashion, to discuss the details of registration and the ballot.

Others have been working on the campaign, which begins next week, and they already have a cache of campaign materials at the ready.

But come the revolution, and women's issues will move to the forefront of the OMT agenda, according to the movement's regional secretary in Baucau, Maria dos Santos Fatima.

"Up until now we have had no rights as women, and if we get independence we have to make sure that the rights of women are protected," she said. "When there's no intimidation, no terror, then women's rights have to be equal with men's."

There is an ugly seam of domestic violence in East Timorese society, which the women's organisation half-acknowledged, before backtracking and saying that the "women of East Timor have to follow their men".

Many here attribute the violence within families to the simmering anger and frustration that has been a part of East Timorese life for the past quarter-century.

East Timorese men seem to feel that women are their property, and there have been ugly scenes in Dili, where the men resent their relatives, or girlfriends, fraternising with westerners. One girl had a cigarette stubbed out on her face. Another resisted being dragged by her hair from a party.

Rape, too, has been widespread, but generally inflicted on the women by militiamen, although Mrs Fatima said most rape had a political aspect.

Braving rape, and domestic violence and intimidation, and coping with the demands of hordes of children, the women of OMT will continue to work for independence.

One of Mrs Fatima's associates nodded at the toddler in her arms, smiled and said: "The future of East Timor."

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