Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Fourth workshop on women’s participation in the 2007 elections

Today I attended the fourth workshop on women’s participation in the 2007 elections. It was held at the City Café, THE hangout for the Portuguese ex-pats, which to its credit, bakes the best paun (bread) available in Dili for a mere $1 a loaf.

I was interested to see that I was the only malae in attendance although at least two Indonesians, one who works for UNIFEM and the other who lectures at UNTL (the national university), were also attending. About 100 people were in attendance.

Everyone spoke in Tetum so I could only pick up bits and pieces, although much more than I could nine months ago. Obviously my language skills have improved. However, as it grew quite wearing to listen, I read a fifteen page document in English called Towards a new electoral framework in Timor-Leste: on the legal framework, proportional representation and choice of electoral systems by the International Federation of Electoral Systems (IFES).
It was fascinating to read as Timor’s Constitution states that only proportional representation (PR) may be used, but as there are many methods of PR, the parliament has to decide on which one in order to pass an electoral law before the elections next year. The three methods discussed had their advantages and disadvantages and I am personally set on one in particular. As a firm supporter of PR (as it is the most democratic system available), I look forward to hearing the debates in parliament about which particular method will be chosen for this country.

A woman in her 40s wearing her finest aqua blue dress with matching silver blue sandals sat near me and who I came to believe had a rather sad history. The fingers on both her hands had been cut off from just below the knuckles and reattached as long scars were clearly visible. She had very little movement in any of her fingers and the pointer finger on her left hand was permanently bent. I noticed that she found it a challenge to write. Her right arm had a number of healed but deep gashes which I suspected were related to her finger injuries. I couldn’t help but wonder if she was a victim of a machete attack or torture during the Indonesian occupation or perhaps domestic violence. I wondered about her a great deal and my heart shed a few tears as her suffering was clearly visible.

I was able to meet three very different Timorese women during the course of the day. The first was a woman aged 31 who studies Accounting at UNTL (the national university). She is originally from Balibo in Bobonaro district which borders Indonesian West Timor. Balibo is infamous in Australia for the murder of five journalists by the Indonesian military as they invaded Timor in December 1975. The murdered journalists have been immortalised as the ‘Balibo Five’. This young woman’s English was very good so we were able to converse with each other easily.

The second woman was probably in her 40s, small and tubby with no waist (as mentioned in earlier posts, overweight Timorese do exist). She was very warm and we spoke in Tetum about her work and mine. She works for the only local NGO that works for and with Timorese female sex workers by providing them with counselling and health advice such as the need for clients to wear condoms to prevent STIs and HIV/AIDS (more on that subject to come in a future post). I really admired this woman’s courage to work in such a highly stigmatized area in Timor. I also really liked her.

The third woman was a “traditional” Timorese woman in her 50s or 60s. She wore a tais-feto (sarong worn by women) with a mismatched jacket/top fastened together with safety pins (I have yet to see one of these jackets with buttons or clasps). She wore her hair in a bun and her teeth were very worn down (but not it would appear from chewing bua (betelnut) as her teeth and gums were not stained red). She also wore a number of silver bangles on her wrists which jangled when she moved her arms about; and up and down her forearms were many tattoos and I again wondered a great deal about their origin.

Tia (aunt) as she insisted I call her is a gifted and well sought after tais (decorative cloth) maker from Oecusse, the ex-clave of Timor in Indonesian West Timor. Her creations are purchased by the government to give to visiting dignitaries. She uses only the finest cotton which is the traditional material of tais, but which today can only be purchased in Indonesian West Timor. (Most tais for sale in Timor are made from cheaper man made materials and not considered as good for this reason.) Tia was very demonstrative and kept touching my hands and arms when she spoke and as I intently listened to her in Tetum, I warmed to her immediately.

Tia works for an NGO in Dili not far from my home. I made arrangements to visit her in a couple of week’s time so that I could see her work. She asked me to write my name down and my favourite colours as she wants to make me a small tais woven with my name. Naturally I chose kór-violeta (purple), verde (green) and mutin (white) the feminist colours.

I thoroughly enjoyed sharing my day with these women. At the conclusion of the workshop I felt quite elated, a feeling so seldom felt living in Timor that I hoped the feeling would remain for just a little while longer.

Category: Timor-Leste (East Timor)

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