Women’s rights and activism in Timor-Leste

By Bella Galhos

My name is Bella Galhos and I am a survivor of family violence. Today I would like to share with you the story of my family violence, a culture of silence, and my dream for the children of this country.

I was born and grew up here in this country, in Dili, and as a woman, there are many expectations that have been attached to me since I was very young and I am the oldest daughter in my family. I have 4 older brothers, I have 2 sisters and I have 2 younger brothers. As a child and also as a woman, my culture has expectations, a “do” list and a “don’t” list for me, and one of the most important things, as a woman, was that I should not bring shame to my family. I should not. I should not speak publicly about the bad things in my family, but it is okay for me to make up stories, to lie to show to outsiders how great my family is. This is how I’ve been brought up and been taught as a woman.

I come from a very simple family where I witnessed my parents’ separation at the age of 6. My father left us alone with my mother as a single parent. I know some people are questioning, what happened in my family that lead to the separation of my parents? I don’t have fond memories of my childhood, yet I remember so many things that my father has done to me, my mother, and all of us, and I never get tired of sharing. I just hope for one thing: Change.

I was an unwanted child at the age of 4 by my father; I was sold for merely 5 dollars, 50,000 rupiah. My mother, of course, fought the battle to have me back and the price she paid for it was physical and mental abuse at the hands of my father. I grew up in a house that was exposed to almost all forms of violence, from physical violence, sexual violence. My mother went through a lot and all of us witnessed that. Sleepless nights, isolation, horrifying days at the hands of my father; if it didn’t satisfy him, he didn’t do it. Infidelity, stalking my mother, making all of us work like slaves. Life was hell back then. We had a house, but not a home.

After years of abuse by my father, my mother decided to fight a battle for separation. In the early 80s it wasn’t easy for women like my mother to fight for separation, but she did it. She made it for herself and for us. I often remember her words, she would say, “I wanted to live longer at least to see all of you move on with your lives. If I had kept that marriage, I would not be able to make it.” Those words haunted me since I was so young, but let me tell you: That story of my mother, the experience of my mother, and the story of mine that I am sharing with you today, it is the story of many women and many mothers of this country.

There are two horrifying incidents, out of many, done by my father that I remember even today: The first one was when I had to pull a nail out of my mom’s thigh, my father had beaten her with the wood that the nail was attached to, that was the first one out of many; the second one was when I had to witness my mother tied up by my father in their bedroom by her feet and her long hair and we as children faced the consequences if we dared to free our mother.

You might be wondering whether my parents’ separation had brought some changes. My answer is no. It believed and said so many times, for children who are exposed so much to violence, when they grow up they will do it too. This is in fact the case of my oldest brother. My oldest brother took all of my father’s violent behaviour on all of us and also on me, until last year when he attempted to kill me.

My father’s violent behaviour and my brother’s violent behaviour had a lot of impact on me and my other siblings. It has changed the way we look at the world and the people around us. And for me, like most women, I grew up to believe that it was normal to be beaten up. For many years, I allowed myself to be beaten up and that it was men’s duty to do so. You must be wondering too, why all this happened? Where was everybody? Where was my extended family or my neighbours? Well, I come from a very dominated family society and it also believes that traditional belief of women’s rules and about family’s fashion. It also believes that no one should interfere in another family’s life. Our father, our brother, our husbands, they just do their duty to make sure that we behave well in our family, in our home. As I’m speaking to you, I remember my mother and often my own conscience hits me hard whether, if I spoke out back then, my family did something about and if society had the courage to do something about it, maybe she would still be alive today. Maybe. But I realize that my silence, my family’s silence, my society’s silence, and more so the act of normalized violence, it did not help me, it did not help anybody in my family, and in the family of society as a whole. It’s destroying me, destroying my family, and destroying many people in this country and I wonder how many more women, many more mothers, would have to go through this until finally we realize that these actions of violence, in no matter what form, is destroying us, destroying our families, and most of all destroying the children’s lives in this country if we don’t do something about it.

After 37 years, I am 42 right now, I have decided to put an end to family violence, starting from my family because I know it didn`t help. It didn’t help anybody. My mother’s life and her struggle inspire me. If back then she could do it, why today I can’t? But knowing very well that her struggle back then, and I know there were a lot of mixed feelings within the family, my mom perhaps was considered heartless or too extreme when she decided to leave my father. He was doing his job. And if she behaved well, perhaps nothing would have happened. But though she behaved so well, my mother for me was a perfect mother, but she was still suffering. And today my struggle to put an end to violence in my family, or any violence that I see, I’ll do something about it.

Again, I’ve been seen as extreme, heartless, that I just wanted to destroy my family, I just have no heart to bring my brother to justice. He was just doing his job, making sure that I behave well or listened to him or submitted to him. That’s what we believe here also, not all. You all know, I know, that no one deserves to be beaten up. Nobody deserves to be pulled by their hair, pulled to the ground, humiliated, isolated. We all deserve love, happiness, peace, that’s all that we all want. We don’t ask for more, we don’t ask for less.

I want to remind all of us, and also myself, that we can make a difference. At least we can start by looking at ourselves, what can we do to change us? What can we do to break the silence that we have upheld for such a long time and stop the normalization of violence? We can start from our homes, in this community and this country as a whole. Maybe I am not asking, but I beg you please do.

Now having shared all this, just again I remind you, the change that I am hoping for and I can keep on talking like this, never ending, if there is no change. I will keep going if I have to. I hope not, that you might also want to put your voice out there. Despite all this, I have a dream. I have a dream for the children of this country because I don’t think that I have the heart again to keep on seeing the young generation coming through what I, you, and many have gone through. I think it is time to say enough to all this!

But before I share this dream, let me explain to you why I am taking it on. I think I am not the only one perhaps seeing the children on the streets of Dili, I don’t think I’m the only one, am I? There are children on the streets, wandering around aimlessly, some even taking the risk of biking. The way they ride, the way they drive, you guys see it, it’s very dangerous. They are begging for money, they are begging for food, they are all over the places. Maybe like you, I am wondering, where are their parents? Where are their houses? How come they’re in the street? Well, I can relate to them. I know how it’s like to be on the street; when nobody cares about you in the family, in the house, then you will find a place where you maybe feel you belong to. This is what these children do and we’ve got to stop that. We have to take them home. It’s not only their parent’s responsibility, but we are too. This is our responsibility, to do something about it.

So this is how this Green School came in place. I initiated this project because I know that the struggle to fight for ending violence is not a short one. It’s going to be a long process. So I started this place, this Green School and Friendly Camp in Maubisse to give the children of this country at least a place they can call home. And the reason I put it in Maubisse is because of my mother, this is her hometown where she grew up. And this place that I built, this Green School is the first place that my mother set up, a female school back 50 years ago. So I want to contribute that effort in the name of my mother.

What is all this Green School about? The Green School is basically that I just want to give another chance to these kids to learn about love, to learn about their life skills, besides loving others they too should love their environment. It is important that we teach our kids about their environment too, simply because in Timor-Leste we do have a lot of natural resources. How would we keep that going if our youngest ones don’t even understand their own environment? And how would they learn their environment if their environment is full of violence? There should be some people, maybe myself, all of you, or some of us, we should do something about it. This is how this Green School came about and I’m still in the process of making it and I’m hoping that this Green School will definitely come to a reality. And not only that, I am hoping, again and again, let’s join hand-in-hand to put an end to violence.

It starts from our homes. Stop pretending! Stop lying! Stop making up stories! Tell the truth! We are not hoping to put our parents or our brothers or our uncles or whatever in jail. That’s not the point. We want them to be a good father, a good brother, a good man around us. We are not hoping to lock them up, but we are hoping that they can be good people, a good father, a good brother, a good husband. Perhaps we are not asking too much. I’m also not asking too much. I’m just asking them to be kind, to be loving, and to be more responsible. It’s hurtful when you are being humiliated so badly that you feel that you have no dignity and that has to stop. So help me in putting an end to this violence and help me to make the Green School a reality for these children of Timor-Leste.

(This text transcribes Bella’s TedX Dili talk, delivered on 15 May 2015.)


Leave a Reply