Memoir

Women and children first

ROSALINA XIMENES' 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 over the last month since the murder of her husband.

At three, Arris will only learn of Timor-Leste's krizi politika and the circumstances in which his father lost his life when he is older. Paulo da Costa was one of a group of police officers gunned down with weapons belonging to the nation's army on May 25, 2006. 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 1,300 displaced people – they have no house to return to. In the circumstances, it was all I could offer. Yet the tiniest flicker of a smile from Rosalina as I took my leave told me that it was a gesture of some significance to her – the first she has received from a public figure or member of the government since her husband's death.

Rosalina is one of fifteen women widowed by the recent conflict with whom I have met since May. In my capacity as first lady, wife of the President of Timor-Leste, 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. I am lobbying the police and other government authorities to commit to providing regular, ongoing payments to the widows. 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. Timor-Leste 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. Timor-Leste's 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 twenty-five 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 – found themselves made members of parliament, government officials, even senior department heads. The learning curves were brutally sharp. "Capacity-building" was the catch-cry of the United Nations-led period of transition to independence, and it continues to be a key concern across government and within civil society organisations today.

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

By early 2006, 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 government in the face of worsening poverty was coming to a head. Families who, in Indonesian times, had been able to purchase 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.

It was little wonder then that, when a few hundred soldiers bearing a grudge after being dismissed from the nation's army took to the streets to protest in April, a trigger of national proportions was squeezed.

I will perhaps be taken to task for expressing these views. 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 2006 – 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. So what is the role of a "first lady" if not that of political commentator? What is expected of her?

 

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 Timor-Leste 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 amongst 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.

Being a teacher by training and an activist by experience, I felt horribly ill-equipped to take on my new role. And so, when I was approached in early 2002 by a well-meaning grey-haired lady from the International Republican Institute (something tells me her name was "Martha") who had some tips to share with me, I listened eagerly. Timor-Leste was about to achieve its dream of national independence. I had been busy for months preparing a proposal to government for the establishment and support of the "Office of the First Lady". I had no idea really of what would be expected of me, but was encouraged to believe that a small allocation of public funds was my due and a necessity if I was to be effective in a public role. So I asked for a car and a modest travel allowance, plus a small kitty for "representation". "Martha" earnestly recommended that a media officer and marquees for hosting garden parties be added to my list. As it turned out, I got nothing. I was mildly irritated, but was urged by all to recall that Timor-Leste's annual national budget was on a par with the budget for maintenance of Australia's Parliament House in Canberra.

When I thought about the spouses of other heads of state, I imagined women with big hair hosting elegant cocktail parties and afternoon teas with cucumber sandwiches served on bright white doilies. Not having the benefit of a predecessor with whom to consult and conspire – I was the first first lady of Timor-Leste – I had to define the role myself. That included finding ways to access the funds to do the work I quickly identified as my priority: improving the lot of women and children.

The women of Timor-Leste live in deep poverty. Over half of them are illiterate and struggle to heal the wounds of twenty-five years of a brutal military occupation. Low social status, associated with cultural and religious norms, and an entrenched patriarchy add insult to their injury. In opting to throw my weight behind them, I had my work cut out. Thanks to the Alola Foundation, which I had established a year earlier to draw attention locally and internationally to the variety of forms of gender-based violence experienced by women in Timor-Leste, and to a grant from Dr Suthawan Sathirathai, wife of the Thai Deputy Prime Minister, I embarked on my challenging new journey with a modicum of support and decorum.

In 2002, the Alola Foundation's office was located in a room the size of a large broom cupboard at the rear of the World Bank building in Dili. Meetings with the women associated with our first project, an initiative aimed at identifying the training and other needs of handicraft producers, were conducted under a tree outside the cramped headquarters sitting on chairs scrounged from adjacent offices.

As our work and the demands on our services and meagre resources grew, we began the hunt for more fitting premises, and stumbled across a gutted building in the old market precinct of Dili belonging in Indonesian times to the Motor Vehicle Registration Board. I resisted pressure to have the inside walls, still bearing the marks of the arson and devastation of 1999, painted over. The charring was a salutary and important reminder of the past from which we were emerging and recovering, I believed. The official opening of the new office in February 2003 was simultaneously the launch of our National Breastfeeding Association of Timor-Leste, a body I had been anxious to establish since giving birth to my first son at Dili National Hospital in September 2000. Entertainment at the opening consisted of Xanana and I performing a short theatrical skit on the social ill of domestic violence and the benefits of breastfeeding, with our second son, Kay Olok, the "prop".

The 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 currently has twenty-three women MPs out of a total of eighty-seven, 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 from their male counterparts, 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 sixty-five.

 

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 once 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. With the prime minister on the verge of announcing his resignation, and facing criminal investigation through the Dili District Court for alleged distribution of arms to civilians, a handful of male cabinet ministers began weighing up whether or not to tender their own resignations. 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 Timor-Leste within a government "which no longer functions effectively". Six other senior government officials, including three ministers, two vice-ministers and a secretary of state, were spurred on by her brave example and also resigned from their posts. Shortly afterwards a new government was formed, and a semblance of peace, if not normalcy, returned.

My experience has convinced me that women in a country like Timor-Leste 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. And yet they are virtually absent from the discussions relating to 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 Timor-Leste still have a long way to go to achieve their rights as equal and valued citizens of their new nation.

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