Women & reconciliation in Timor-Leste

Bella speaks at the University of Ottawa, 2015

By Bella Galhos

Transcript of a talk at the workshop on truth and reconciliation held in Ottawa in 2015.

Women and reconciliation in Timor-Leste is not a simple topic. It is a huge topic because today, as women of Timor-Leste, we are still struggling. In an earlier period, we entered a process of liberating our country and now we are entering into the important struggle of liberating us, the people of Timor-Leste. Of course, women and youth are the most vulnerable groups, still in the frontline to make a difference in the world.

I was in Canada during the occupation struggle, when women should have been taking part in the struggle and working side by side with men, but most of my family’s women, I always remember, we were told not to pay attention to that, or we would bring shame to our leaders, especially men. But I didn’t stop; I kept on talking about things I wanted to change. The reason, of course, is that Timor is a very strong patriarchal society and this is why today women are fighting for their place. In a country that is so strongly male-dominated it is hard for women to come forward.

We managed have to get a large number of women into the government positions. Here I am talking about the quantity of women’s positions: We have 38 women members of parliament. But as to what have they done, what are their actual roles in the overall process? I have a hard time remembering what they actually do. With most of them, and I’m not saying all, but most, we have a very hard time knowing how they got into these positions. Whether they are more liked by certain leaders, men in the government, then they are put into these positions? Of course, big-mouthed women like me are prevented from getting these positions.

Another issue that is related to talking about reconciliation is that despite the number of women in such positions, the lives of ordinary women have not changed. This is true in health, education, reproductive health, unemployment, domestic violence. Domestic violence is a major problem in East Timor and, of course, in many cases domestic violence and family violence is seen as a normal act and for most people it is quite normalized. This is the situation that we are facing.

We are not the generation that is waiting for our leaders to give us the independence, we are the ones that also led them to independence therefore we know that our job. Leadership does not just come from men. We have much more to do. That’s what we see, so many things to do that are supposed to come with being a new country.

If East Timor is seen as a young person, it is now entering its teenage years. That’s the time when they start revolting. They don’t like this, they don’t like that. We use all these excuses, most of the time; trust us, our generation, we are not sitting around, waiting for others to take care of us. We are working very hard. I will continue to speak out and I am not alone. We are going forward because we know that whatever it is, the change of leadership will continue and we, this young generation, have to think about what needs to be done and then later we will pass it on. And those changes that we are talking about are going to start today, going forward.

Bella speaks at a protest for Timor-Leste in Toronto, 1995

Another aspect of reconciliation is that the war in East Timor caused many family troubles, for example separation or people leaving their houses. It created a diaspora of Timorese going into exile, another major population issue. Not only did Timorese come from the jungles back into urban areas, but there were also many Timorese coming from other countries, like myself. I left and I returned to East Timor. This was not simple. It was a process of adjusting ourselves after we had been gone for so many years. We have among us, some pointing at you saying, “You know what? During the war, where were you? You were in Canada; you saw nice things.” Everybody was trying to measure the things they did during the occupation. But those comparisons divided us, instead of bringing us together. That’s what has been going on. That’s what women say too. Many women have looked at returned exiles from outside and said: “Oh they didn’t know about what happened in East Timor. Everything they say is not culturally acceptable therefore we should not get them involved in the process.”

So there are many divisions. We are a small population in a small country. You might have thought that a small country like Timor could be easily managed … but no. The less people there are and the smaller the size of our country, the more we are face internal issues. We are not only reconciling among ourselves, but inside our own country and families, the violence that we have been fighting against for so many years.

Being independent with our own country is another process that we are going through. So many things are new: in the government, everyone is new. Everyone is learning, how to be Prime Minister, how to be President, how to be an advisor. We are all learning, making mistakes, getting up, making a change, and keeping on even though we are facing challenges.

I remember when I lived in Canada, talking about Timor on the radio. Canada is a rich country, very well-known. But do you think I was not eager to go back to Timor? No. In Canada, I was put in the frontlines to talk about Timor, meeting Canadians to talk about East Timor, but in exile. When we returned home, of course, people in East Timor thought we had been living in Canada and we must be very smart, we must have gone to school, we must have done well to come back to our home. No we did not. I ate a lot of bagels. It was the only thing that I could afford. Meanwhile in Timor, people thought I was living a great life.

I came to Canada with a dictionary, memorized my dictionary and then I lost it. I came home with enough English, enough grammar that I could speak a little. Later all I decided to go back to school in Hawai’i for my degree, not because I really needed it, but because I wanted to be a government advisor as a woman in my country. Being a woman and not well-educated in East Timor means you depend more on your family and men in your life.

There are big challenges for women in East Timor. We women, we internalize the norms that our society puts on us. This is the heart of our struggle and I am having a hard time changing that. This is a long process; while it continues, we just focus on our work. One example is the green school that I founded in Maubisse, East Timor. I came from a very complicated and long struggle because I suffered domestic violence and it has not been easy. So what can I do then? If I spend time to train the older generation, then I should be working on liberation. That is how I started working on the green school. Besides teaching children how to love their environment, they also have the chance to play and learn about the values of family and loving each other, to be team leaders. All of these values are actually designed in the green school to empower our children in Timor. I am hoping that this will inspire our leaders with the same characteristics.

One of the objectives of this is to try to encourage young Timorese to not all move to Dili because Dili is over-crowded. It is the capital of Timor so everything is centralized. After you finish high school or even earlier school, then you have to go to Dili for the rest of high school or university.

After almost thirteen years of independence, we have made progress, I think, but there are challenges still for many of us. It will start with us as we liberate ourselves. Those who are in power have more responsibility but, as during the independence struggle, younger people like my generation are also taking responsibility.

Not every woman wants to speak against their husband or their brother in those situations because of the social pressure. Women are supposed to take care of their brothers; this is the law. For me, I came to a point where enough was enough, where nobody can touch me because I am an adult and no one should touch me. Nobody should go through that process. In this case, people need to get up and speak up, and be loud about it. Unfortunately, there are not many who do that. People should be working hard, speaking out, but there are not many. Since I gave a Ted-X talk (which you can view online – transcript on previous post), that has encouraged more Timorese women to talk about domestic violence and come to a realization that if we want to move forward with our country’s future and everything that we fought for over so many years, things have to change.

Many people are still today demanding justice, demanding that those who were involved in atrocities then and today are held responsible, but many in government promote the idea that Timorese believe that we should forward. “Move forward” means, for example, being asked to forget the past, in order to move forward with our future.

At the same time, Timor-Leste tries to be an example other countries in conflict, and Timor-Leste has developed a very close relationship with Indonesia, with excellent bilateral cooperation. The government says the relationship with Indonesia has become mature, emphasizing such successes as the negotiation of the land border between Indonesia and Timor. This was supposed to be an issue that might create tension between the two countries, but instead it was handled carefully and successfully. At the same time there are non-governmental organizations that call for the government to listen to victims and try to hold accountable those who committed atrocities.

You can’t force people to forgive. If you have lived through many years of being colonized, sometimes you do not jump to forgive.



Leave a Reply