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Violence and Inequality – A Challenge for Women in Timor Leste

Tamara Sloper Harding – 24-11-2010

This week, Thursday 25 November was White Ribbon Day, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. On 17 December 1999, the United Nations

General Assembly designated 25 November as a day to raise public awareness of the problem all over the world.

Governments, international organizations and NGOs were invited to organize activities highlighting this theme.
Although Timor Leste is now an independent nation the scars of years of brutal occupation remain evident in so many aspects of daily life. Confronted with many obstacles, women continue working towards peace, security and justice. Countless lives have been shattered by violence both past and present. Women have been displaced from their homes; witnessed close family members being tortured and slaughtered and been abuse victims themselves. Young girls were abducted and enslaved by pro integration militias. These women could now be free but they remain tied to their kidnappers by the children they bore them.

Women face significant discrimination in the household, the workplace and the community. Dominated by the traditional patriarchal society they still suffer violence.  – Violence that very often occurs inside their own homes. Many women in Timor-Leste consider this a normal part of family life. Tradition and customary law favour men over women. Men own property, men inherit and men make all the important decisions. As a much higher percentage of women are illiterate, they become subordinated and economically dependent on men.

Kirsty Sword Gusmao, the Australian wife of the Prime Minister of Timor Leste  Xanana Gusmao says  “The major challenges that women face today relate to economic independence  — or  dependence — and the impact of that in terms of the options that are available in resolving issues such as violence in the home. Women are very financially dependent on men and they therefore often do not have the option of pursuing legal channels, and this shuts off access to other things, like education. That is particularly the case of rural women.”

The women’s movement is young and the future for the women of Timor Leste is bright – they have many champions for their cause. It has been recognized that the future growth of the country lies with the development and empowerment of its women.

Recently a mother at Maria Regina School lent me Greg Mortensen’s book, “Three Cups of Tea”. Greg is an American who has made it his life’s work to promote peace by building schools for the children of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Tales of his travels had an odd similarity to our recent adventures in Timor Leste. The challenges of culture, infrastructure (lack of) and communication resonated with me. However, it was a couple of his quotes that really rang true. He quoted an old African proverb saying;

“Educate a boy, and you educate and individual. Educate a girl, and you educate a community.”

He then continued;

“Once you educate the boys, they tend to leave the villages and go search for work in the cities, but the girls stay home, become leaders in the community, and pass on what they’ve learned. If you really want to change a culture, to empower women, improve basic hygiene and health care, and fight high rates of infant mortality, the answer is to educate girls.”
The same could be said of Timor Leste.
If you would like to read more about Timor Leste, Soibada and our Friendship Project please look on the Parish Website. www.pittwaterparish.org There are also some good links to videos about Timor.

Tetum word of the Week
Feto   woman

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