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The female guerrillas denied liberation long after Timor-Leste's war was won
The Guardian - December 29, 2017
She became active in its women's organisation, where she promoted equal rights and railed against domestic violence, forced prostitution and polygamy. The country was deeply patriarchal after hundreds of years of Portuguese colonial rule. She saw fighting for equality as a natural part of her struggle as a leftwing guerrilla.
In 2002, when a new, independent country was finally formed, the ascension of the rebels and their allies to power didn't automatically lead to women's liberation. Fifteen years later, there's still a lot of fighting to be done, she says.
"Some things are a lot better than before, but some serious problems remain. Violence has not left our homes, for example," says Soares, who used the government pension she received for the many years she spent in the jungle to create a network of schools near her home outside Timor-Leste's capital, Dili.
"I knew education was essential for giving the next generation the best shot," she says, even though she didn't receive a formal education herself. Some of the schools have been incorporated into the country's public education system.
The 2002 constitution enshrines equal rights for men and women. By law, women are guaranteed at least a third of seats in parliament – and with 38% of seats occupied by women, one of the world's youngest democracies has one of Asia's highest female participation rates. However, how much power they have to make decisions is another matter. They hold few leadership positions.
Women face serious challenges. Between 40% and 60% of Timor-Leste's women have experienced some type of violence. Only 21% of women are in the labour force, compared with 40% of men, and they only lead 5% of the country's village councils. While women are guaranteed full property rights by law, in practice society dictates that land is controlled by men. And women can lose de facto rights if their husband dies or the marriage ends. Government benefits awarded for the sacrifices made during the independence struggle are mostly going to men, even though women's contributions were fundamental.
Former resistance fighters and a new generation of women are now taking on these challenges. And the challenges are many, in a cash-strapped young nation with a dark past: the Indonesian occupation killed an estimated 25% of the country's population, and when the military left in 1999, it demolished the capital and murdered dozens of its citizens as payback for voting them out.
For Sunita Carminha, head of UN Women in Dili, the past 15 years have seen the women's movement making headway. "There's been a lot of progress in terms of legislation passed and international commitments made on gender equality that are a continuation of women's participation in the resistance," she says. "And the government has taken continuous steps to implement the commitments. The question is to what extent that has translated into a changed reality."
Women played a crucial role in the independence struggle. While men, alongside women like Soares, made up the majority of the armed guerrillas, controlling territory in the hills and jungles, women made up more than 60% of the clandestinos, according to former resistance fighters and current officials. These secret support networks operated in plain sight, and would smuggle supplies and information to the rebels.
The country is full of tales of these women tricking Indonesian soldiers, stealing their weapons or supplies and passing them along to independence fighters. Timor-Leste is also very full of stories – often suppressed – of the widespread violence and sexual abuse women suffered at the hands of the Indonesian military or paramilitary militias.
So far, the government has implemented a robust programme that distributes pension payments to veterans of the armed struggle. But the clandestinos get no such payments. Meanwhile, a national reparation programme that would provide trauma counselling and aim to empower the country's most vulnerable women has been shelved by the parliament.
"We are doing this crucial work [trauma counselling] now, as well as we can. But we don't have all the resources we need to address the full problem," said Manuela Leong Pereira, head of Assosiasaun Chega! ba Ita (Enough! for Us), an organisation putting into practice some of the country's 2005 Enough! truth and reconciliation report.
The report was the result of years of work by the country's commission for reception, truth and reconciliation. It painstakingly documented abuses and made bold recommendations. These objectives are still a framework for the goals many activists hope to achieve, but few have been implemented fully. In addition to cost, there was also the desire to avoid antagonising Timor-Leste's neighbours and hesitance to confront abuses committed during Indonesia's decades-long occupation.
Pereira says survivors often have to deal with feelings of shame as well as even greater social discrimination than most women experience. "Parliament just didn't have the political will to get the law [for trauma counselling] passed," she adds.
For the moment, parliament is locked in a very different struggle. In the first election held since UN observers left the country, the coalition led by the Fretilin party – the same that Soares joined in 1975 – failed to win an outright majority in this year's election and a solution is still being sought to form a working government.
Dili is making slow progress on a rights deal with Australia required to develop an offshore gas field, one of the country's few likely sources of major revenue in the mid-term. And diplomatically, Timor-Leste remains a tiny, almost forgotten country sandwiched between a nation that invaded it (Indonesia) and another (Australia) whose diplomatic acquiescence allowed the occupation.
As this young democracy goes through growing pains, some women are operating outside the political sphere. Bella Galhos, who has lived in Canada and was one of a few women with an influential role in the diaspora, now runs Santana Unipessoal, an organisation seeking to provide basic necessities for at-risk communities and help build socially effective small businesses. The diaspora was an essential prong of the resistance to occupation.
"When we were involved in the resistance, my idea of our own country was not just a flag and a national anthem, but above all having food and not depending on other people. If your belly is dependent on someone else, that's not independence," says Galhos, who is also one of the country's few public advocates for LGBT rights.
Though Santana is not exclusively a women's empowerment organisation, it often deals directly with women. "Women and youth are the most vulnerable groups, especially in rural areas. Most resources in this country still simply belong to men," adds Galhos, who is back in Timor-Leste.
Part of the reason for that is women's contributions to the independence struggle are not put at the centre of history, where they belong, says Lourdes Alves Araujo, head of the Organizacao Popular das Mulheres da Timor, the women's wing of Fretilin. Among its projects is a forthcoming book that does exactly that.
"Often since the war ended, it's been mostly men who have had their stories told and their images presented to the country," says Araujo. "But many of our leaders and heroes were women, and it's important to recover that history and make it right."
[Additional reporting by Raimundos Oki and Zevonia Vieira.]