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

Ramona Vijeyarasa

Nearly 350 women gathered together for the Second International "Women for Peace Conference" in East Timor to talk about the role women can play "as creative agents for peace."

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."

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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

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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