Tuesday, August 09, 2005

The importance of education

Friday 5 August 2005

The Australian Embassy responded to our email concerning the Australian woman who was raped by the taxi driver with your typical civil service response: “we cannot discuss individual cases”. We weren’t after her name, just confirmation that an Australia woman was raped! How is that discussing an individual’s case?

We are being driven insane by our neighbours’ insistence on playing music for the entire neighbourhood starting at 6:30am and continuing on and off all day until around 10pm. It is much worse on the weekends as there is hardly any respite from its intrusion into our peace and tranquillity. We can just about tolerate the many and varied animal noises that abound, but music cranked up is just wearing. What is most disturbing is that this family has a number of very small children who have to endure this noise at much closer quarters than us. As it is the husband who plays the music loudly, whenever dad is at home, these children never get any peace. When he leaves (for work?) in the mornings, the music gets turned off. I have wondered if this is because his wife prefers peace or whether the husband has instructed her not to touch his equipment!

We have talked about the music problem with our Tetun teacher and he tells us that it is a common complaint of “malae” in Timor (I wish someone had told us this before we agreed to come here.) He says the problem is caused by the fact that the Timorese have only recently acquired modern technology and they are unaccustomed to the social etiquette, which comes with playing particularly noisy equipment. That is, they just don’t know that you cannot play music so loudly and so often. He has given us a couple of sentences in Tetun, which roughly translated means: “please can you turn down your music.” We have decided to introduce ourselves to our neighbours this weekend and then at a later date (although not too late) we will ask them to turn the music down. If this doesn’t work, we can ask our landlady, as the people we are having problems with are her relatives. Also, if we make it clear that although we are in the main happy living here, we cannot tolerate the loud music and therefore, will have to move out, we hope that she can talk to her relatives and get them to turn it down. Our family is dependent on our rent for their survival, particularly as the father has recently finished his contract building roads in Ermera and is looking for work, which is not easy to find in Timor. Failing that, we have decided to move out, as we simply could not put up with the noise for two years. However, as we paid three months rent in advance, we still have two and a half months to go before we could move!

It is the norm in Timor that extended families live together either under the one roof, or next door to one another. This provides families with support that in the West, the welfare state provides. However, it also allows more opportunity for the sexual abuse of, in particular, little girls at the hands of their male relatives. Daniel and I could think of nothing worse than having to live next to all our relatives (no offence intended to anyone reading this, just having you ALL around ALL the time would be too much!!). This reflects our own cultural norms of raising individuals to be independent of others. Timorese society is also incredibly hierarchical (men without a doubt at the top followed a long way down by women, children and animals). There are also different classes within the society and if you belong to one, you only associate with those of the same class. I wonder if the Timorese suffer from status anxiety, as we do in the West, given they live so closely to their families and others of the same class.

We have noticed our family’s children washing, brushing their teeth (while the tap runs) and drinking from the tap in our front garden. They wash their face, arms, and legs but leave the rest of their body untouched. The fact that they drink the putrid water is of most concern.

I have been reading the history of the first six years of the women’s organisation that I work for (last month they celebrated their eight-year anniversary). It is a book of some 350 pages originally written in Bahasa but translated into English for use on the computer only. It is at times harrowing reading. The cases of violence inflicted on women and children by men both during the referendum in 1999 and after independence make your heart break. Cases of violence against women actually increased in the years following independence.

Most of the women I work with are so softly spoken that I find it difficult to hear what they are saying. Timorese men say it is because they are shy. I say it is because they occupy such a lowly position in society and as a result, they are not taught to assert themselves. I feel very loud in comparison.

A female colleague asked me the other day if I had any children. I said no. She said, “I’m sorry”. To be a woman and not to have children is considered very sad in Timor. Women are only women if they have children. This woman has five children aged 2, 4, 6, 9 and 12. She works full time so I assume a relative takes care of the two younger ones. In my team of three, one very young woman has a daughter (and I am sure more will follow) and the other colleague has three children. I have noticed that the women further down the hierarchy at work have more children than the woman further up the hierarchy. This is not so very different from the West, it’s just there are fewer children all round.

Despite our appreciation of and respect for the Timorese people, it is very difficult not to feel that as an educated Western person you simply have more information about the world, and in particular the consequences of local practices. This makes us uncomfortable, as it is not something we wish to feel. However, it cannot be denied that with education, comes a better understanding of many issues. From small things like turning the tap off while you brush your teeth in order to save a precious resource, to bigger issues like educating women as well as men. In the end, you have to say to yourself, they just don’t know any better because they don’t have the education. Living here highlights the incredible importance of education. It makes me very angry that although the constitution of Timor-Leste states that education, particularly primary, is to be universal and free, parents have to find $3 a month to send their child to school. When you have an average of eight children, that’s $24 a month or about $250 a year. And when the average GDP per capita is less than $500 a year that translates into spending half your yearly income on school fees alone! Imagine in the West if we were forced to spend half our income on our children’s education: we would be outraged! The consequences for Timor’s women are damaging as parents prioritise which of their children to send to school and given the low status of girls and women, their brothers win out. This is the same all over the Majority World (Third World or Less Developed Countries).

The entire budget for Timor is approximately $100 million a year and most of this is aid money. Sixty percent of this is spent on the civil service. I do not know if this is a fair amount to spend on the civil service. However, it upsets me that in such a poor country where half the population are illiterate (sixty percent of whom are women), that more is not done to educate the future generation (fifty percent of the population are under the age of 18). The ratio of teachers to students is 1:100. As a result, class sizes are enormous (40-50 students). And parents have to pay for their children to attend school, apparently in order to pay the teachers their salaries. However, it seems to me incredibly short sighted of the government to introduce school fees. I know that Timor is a very poor country and that they simply do not have the money to do everything, but surely education is a (the) top priority?

Timor has a flat income tax rate of 10%(*We are currently checking this, it appears there may be a higher rate if your income exceeds a certain amount). Again, I believe this to be shortsighted of the government. A flat tax rate is not progressive or equitable. The government could generate more revenue if it introduced a progressive tax rate. Although I am sure that there are not many wealthy people in Timor, there are some and they should contribute more to their country. It seems ludicrous to have a flat tax rate and school fees when you could have a progressive tax rate and no school fees!

There appears to be a lot of animosity towards the Timorese government’s decision not to pursue an International Criminal Tribunal (ICT) to bring to justice those Indonesians who played a significant role in the violence inflicted on the Timorese during 1999. Not to mention that the government does not want to pursue an International Criminal Court (ICC) for the atrocities committed during Indonesia’s twenty-four year reign. Most if not all the human rights NGO’s in Timor continue to call on the Timorese government to pursue both an ICT and an ICC but their calls go unheeded. The government, including the president, believes that it is better to forget the past and to get on with things. Tell that to the victims who cannot get on with their lives until they obtain justice! I am not the first to wonder if the reluctance of the government to pursue justice for their people is due both to ‘real politik’; and the glaring fact that most of the government were not living in Timor during Indonesia’s reign, as they were some of the lucky few who escaped to live elsewhere (mostly Lusophone speaking countries). They then returned to Timor after independence to claim a place in parliament. Could it be that, as they did not experience any direct violence (although many did lose family members), they cannot empathise with their countrywomen and men?

Category: Timor-Leste (East Timor)

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