The painful secrets of East Timor’s women

The first shock came when her husband fled. He feared the Indonesian troops invading East Timor in 1975 and jumped on to a ship and out of her life. “Maria”, as she wants to be known, struggled to keep going with her four children in the war-torn city of Dili. She cooked food and sent the children out into the streets to try to sell it.

She never grew used to the soldiers. They knew there was no man in the house. They would come by at four in the morning, battering on her door, demanding to search for freedom fighters or ammunition. They never found either but took whatever they fancied – watches, suitcases, clothes. Then came the night that three of them fancied something she could not let them take: her daughters, aged 10 and 11.

Maria tells the story sitting under a shady plane tree in Melbourne, her fingers twisting a handkerchief, her eyes red with tears she refuses to shed. She had sent the girls to hide with a neighbor. She had heard stories about mass rapes in the villages, about groups of women forced into long-term sexual slavery. “Because they couldn’t find my daughters they were very angry,” she says, through an interpreter.

“All along they had just wanted to come into my house to demonstrate how powerful they were. When they couldn’t get my daughters, they forced me instead.” She told no one of the pack rape. Even the child born of it, who is now a teenager, does not know.

Many of Timor’s women carry terrible secrets. A new report published by the East Timor Human Rights Centre says that Indonesian authorities, and in particular the military, have systematically violated the human rights of Timorese women. They have been forcibly sterilised, coerced into accepting contraception and raped so routinely that some Timorese families teach their girls at home because they fear they will be attacked on the way to school. Others lose access to education because their parents fear that school “vaccinations” might be the controversial injectable contraceptive, Depo Provera.

The report, From One Day to Another: Violations of Women’s Reproductive and Sexual Rights in East Timor, was written by Miranda Sissons, an Australian now based at the Yale Centre for International Studies in America. This report and another by Dr George Aditjondro, a lecturer at NSW’s University of Newcastle, were prepared for the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women. The Special Rapporteur is due to report to the Commission on Human Rights in Geneva next May on the issue of state-sponsored violence against women.

Sissons’ report concentrates on alleged abuses by the Indonesian national family planning program. In the 1980s this included the forcible injection of schoolgirls with Depo Provera and the covert sterilisation of women who were admitted to hospital for other procedures such as caesarean delivery or appendectomy. There were also stories of babies aborted or killed after birth by hospital staff. Aditjondro documents rape, sexual slavery and prostitution.
Sissons, who visited East Timor as part of her research, found that women had been denied medical treatment in life-threatening circumstances. Some had died after being refused care while in labor. Sissons reports that soldiers round women up for sterilisation or contraceptive “safaris”, and that no follow-up care is readily available for women who later have trouble with the IUDs or injectable hormones given to them.
Sissons says that Indonesian women in other provinces are sometimes treated brutally in relation to population control measures but abuses have been more widespread and extreme in Timor because of its isolation; Indonesian authorities refuse to allow
human rights monitors into the island.

The abuses have convinced many Timorese that the family planning program is being used to bring about the genocide of their people. How, they ask, can Indonesia justify forcing contraception on a nation that lost a third of its population following the 1975 invasion? “There is no good answer to that,” Sissons says. “There’s a very strong belief that this is about ethnic dilution, and it’s not totally unjustified.”

The fear is so great that many now refuse to use the Indonesian-run health services. Sissons says that, partly as a result of this informal boycotting, the death rate in East Timor is the worst in South-East Asia and its infant mortality outstrips even Rwanda’s.

Many have suffered like “Maria”. Ordinary Timorese women, officials and refugees told Sissons that “Rape and other kinds of sexual violence have become embedded in Timor in the last 20 years.”

Dr Aditjondro says that rape is the most common form of torture perpetrated against East Timorese women and is used as a political weapon to subdue, punish, humiliate and “dilute” the local population. It is mostly inflicted on women living in poor, isolated communities, but Aditjondro says that many female relatives of freedom fighters have been raped by soldiers as a form of revenge, including a sister of resistance leader Xanana Gusmao. Another kind of abuse is “forced marriage”, in which a soldier appropriates a young woman to live with him for the duration of his tour of duty. The woman and any children of the union are abandoned when he returns home. Other women are used as “sex slaves”, confined to a house where they must service the local troops.

“Rape and prostitution are linked,” Aditjondro says. “The victims of rape often become very marginalised because they are in a traditional Catholic society where virginity before marriage is highly prized. Often the shame of the woman herself is enough to drive her into prostitution. So the military gets to continuously benefit from its sexual abuse.”

Timor is also experiencing a phenomenon similar to Australia’s “stolen generation” of Aboriginal children farmed out to whites. Aditjondro says that the orphaned children of freedom fighters are “stolen” by the military to be raised in Indonesia, where they grow up learning nothing of their Timorese heritage.

“Maria” has kept her mixed-race child. “It’s not her fault,” she says. “She wasn’t the one who created all this pain. I can’t reject her. She still is my daughter as well. I feel that, in the end, life is given by God.”

It was a struggle for her to reach this point. After the rape, and when she discovered she was pregnant, she wanted to kill herself. “But then I worried about my other children,” she says helplessly. “Who would look after them?” As it turned out, even she could not look after all of them. One son was killed by Indonesian troops who opened fire on the group of friends he was talking to in the street. It was then that she decided the family should come to Australia. She has tried to put the past behind her.

She is not altogether successful. She walks heavily, as if carrying a great burden, and seems to have no plans for her own life other than to endure for the sake of her children. Here is the only question with which she cannot cope: Since the rape, has she been able to feel happiness? Her iron control breaks. She buries her face in her hands and weeps, silently.

First published in The Age.