The violence inflicted during Indonesia’s 1975-1995 occupation was especially savage toward the women and girls of East Timor, in part because of Indonesia’s intent to reduce or even eliminate the Timorese population via violence and sterilization and in part because rape was widely used as a tactic to splinter the country’s resistance.
Sexual violence accelerated before and after the independence ballot in August 1999, but only 853 sexual violations were reported out of the estimated thousands that occurred; women are still waiting for justice. Many women were forced to become “military wives” to multiple Indonesian soldiers, were sexually tortured, raped in the presence of family members or while pregnant, or sterilized.
Indonesia’s purpose of an ethnic cleansing was made clear in the sterilizations and coerced contraception, and in that they targeted indigenous Timorese in particular in their abuses. The population control program was funded by the World Bank and known to the United Nations as a family planning program; although this program is no longer officially funded, many human rights activists believe that on a small scale it is still active in smaller communities of Timor. The sterilizations were often administered by Indonesian “health workers” who injected women with hormones in the guise that they were receiving vaccinations or vitamins, either to women who came into the hospital for treatment or even forcibly to teenage girls at school. An estimated 95,000 women have received such injections since 1975. There are also documented cases of women coming into hospitals for emergency or routine surgeries who were also given tubal ligations.
The Indonesian occupation was especially hard on pregnant women, not only because they were more likely to become targets of violence, but because health resources were cut off; many hospitals were shut down or full, and women often didn’t want to come out of hiding, even to give birth.
Post War, Timorese men’s warwounds were honored by their families and communities, while sexually abused women were often shunned by their husbands, compatriots and church. Rape victims suffer silently in a society that glorifies virginity and faithfulness; there are women scarred physically and emotionally from rape and torture, women with children by Indonesian men or whose family’s were killed leaving them unable to support themselves, and women who have contracted sexually transmitted diseases.
Unfortunately, some of the challenges women face existed before the Indonesian occupation; although changes are being made, traditionally Timorese society gives more power to men over women, and incidents of domestic violence are high; One half of the cases of violence heard by the courts have been of domestic violence.
However, women are breaking with the traditional culture of silence by reporting acts of abuse that often involve their spouses or brothers; an astounding amount of progress has been made in the status of women in East Timor over the past six years. 26% of the seats in the recently elected Constituent Assembly are made up of women, which is the second highest in the Asia-Pacific region, which has only a 12 per cent average of women in elected parliaments; This ensured women’s representation in shaping Timor’s constitution. Women have also gained positions in other decision making and public processes, such as in justice and financing, as district administrators, on radio stations covering women’s issues and in the police force and border control. The defense force is just now beginning to recruit women as well.
Traditionally, women had very little power in the community, but while the Indonesian occupation left women nationally devastated, it also created opportunities for them as well; with the majority of male population in the military, women filled the roles males previously took. They also participated significantly in the liberation effort, including in armed resistance and in smuggling medication, food and weapons to resistance movements. The largest women’s activist network is the “East Timorese Women’s Network” (REDE), comprised of 15 organizations tackling issues such as calling for laws against domestic and public violence, rape, economic discrimination and for a literacy campaign; Other organizations give support to women affected by domestic violence, or who cannot support themselves financially; others seek to educate the public about sexually transmitted diseases and other health issues.
Progress has been made on gender equality, but there is also still much to be done; women in East Timor do not participate in decision making in all levels of government and in educational programs, some are told how to vote, and healthcare is inadequate in relation to pregnancies. But women are on their way to obtaining a representation in their country and communities, and in rebuilding their society to promote gender equality
Sources: almost all of the articles in the 2005-2006 section: East Timor and Indonesia Action Network (ETAN), Women and East Timor; http://etan.org/issues/women.htm