Women’s Power for East Timor

Against the Current, No. 93, July/August 2001

Mano Micató

WOMEN MAKE UP more than half of East Timor’s population and play crucial roles in community life and national identity.  Women’s participation in the reconstruction of East Timor, however, has not yet become a national priority.  Many take for granted or discount women’s work as it is generally unpaid and considered “women’s natural role.”

Women’s contributions to the overall development process are not valued.  Cultural and political structures push women to the sidelines when decisions need to be made. This is particularly true for women at the grassroots, in rural communities, where tradition keeps men in the most powerful community positions.

East Timor’s history has been one of colonial rule over hundreds of years, first under Portugal and then Indonesia.  These colonial forces both created and maintained traditional social and political structures that are hierarchical, undemocratic, divisive, and largely concentrated in the capital Dili. These structures are also patriarchal, marginalizing women and giving men most decision-making powers.

Present development models often reinforce patriarchal and urban-centered policies.  In turn, poor women in rural communities are often left out of the development picture because of patriarchal cultural beliefs and an urban bias to development work.

For many people, the term development conjures images of physical progress in the context of cities with modern commercial centers, modern technology, lots of cars, buildings and office jobs. Development planning, therefore, often focuses disproportionately on urban development, leaving rural communities neglected and leading to a flux of rural youth to cities seeking an influx of work.

Development must be viewed instead from the perspective of people’s daily lives and with a focus on the most basic of needs, such as health, education, housing and agriculture.  Development policies must focus on the most marginalized—poor girls and women in rural communities—and women must be involved in development planning.

How can women at the grassroots become involved in national development efforts in effective and meaningful ways?  How can local governments be held responsible for setting policies that respect the specific needs of women?  What aspects of development most significantly impact the lives of women and girls in rural communities?  What are women already doing to improve life in their communities?

“Ukun rasik an” (Tetum for self-governing and independent) is most clearly understood in East Timor on the level of national liberation.  We must also examine what this term means on the community and individual levels, and what it means for women as a group.

Each person (woman, man, child and elder) must be heard and his or her basic needs met. Together, we must develop strategies for empowering women to speak and raising men’s consciousness of women’s experiences.

Our Common Struggle

How can women be best involved in the development process during this transition period?  Firstly, together we must question and eliminate the culture of patriarchy in which women are dependent on men, passive and lacking courage to take leadership.

Men must listen to women, examine their own biases and support women’s involvement in all levels of decision making.  Together, we must free ourselves, both men and women, from the destructive forces of materialism, corruption, collusion and nepotism.

Women must use their right to influence both national and local governance.  Women in rural areas must be informed about national issues and local government must be transparent.  In rural areas, information is particularly difficult to access because of limited media sources, illiteracy, and a lack of civil society organizations with experience working non-clandestinely.

Women must know, defend and fight actively for their political rights.  There must be guarantees for women’s participation in the local political process.  In this way, the political process will be democratic and respect everyone’s rights.  Overall, civil society must be strong, and in particular, women must play a key role in setting policies around education, health and economic self-sufficiency.

Illiteracy continues to be a serious problem in East Timor, particularly in rural communities.  Approximately 60% of rural women in East Timor are illiterate.  Literacy training is important not only as a tool to develop the nation’s human resources, but also as a means to empower women.

Education, both formal and non-formal, must be prioritized if we are to find healthy and appropriate ways to develop rural communities.  We need to develop popular education models for women in rural communities.

Popular education means building basic skills in a way that encourages civic participation and critical examinations of power structures.  These programs can include basic literacy, civic education, human rights and other topics that empower women.  Women can then choose for themselves how to best improve their lives as women and community members.

Health At Risk

Basic health services for women continue to be dangerously insufficient.  There are not enough midwives and clinics, and the few hospitals and clinics that exist are not fully equipped to serve women’s needs.  At present, international NGOs are responsible for most rural health programs.

There must be sufficient attention to training of local health workers and support for appropriate traditional medical knowledge, so that rural communities may develop self-sufficiency as opposed to dependency on international aid. Broad-based educational programs on women’s health and children’s nutritional needs must be a priority.

Finally, there must be strategies to develop women’s economic capacity at the grassroots.  While women’s work is often viewed as being limited to inside the home, clearly women are deeply involved in agriculture work, as well as commercial and craft enterprises.

Local and national government policies must support local initiatives, such as community canteens and cooperatives for agricultural products and handicrafts.  Women need to be trained in how to manage finances and run their own businesses.

Legacy of Resistance

There is a history of women organizing educational campaigns in rural areas throughout East Timor.  I myself was involved in the early days of the OPMT (Organisaca<177> Popular das Mulheres Timorense) when we organized women’s literacy classes and daily political discussions.

After Indonesia invaded and we fled into the mountains, women and men both discussed the political situation at hand and developed strategies for resistance together.  We must remember this history and learn again from it.

Today, there are women’s organizations and some NGOs that are truly working to support women’s participation in the reconstruction of East Timor.  Women have started new community literacy programs, community-based health initiatives, and small income generating projects for women.

More and more, women in rural areas are organizing and demanding a voice in community decision-making and national policy.  All these activities show that women have the strength and skill to take leadership and contribute significantly to the development of a new, independent East Timor.

Mana Micató, also known as Maria Domingas Alves Soares, is one of the founding members of Fokupers, a women’s organization that focuses on serving women survivors of violence.

from ATC 93 (July/August 2001)