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Women of Timor-Leste finding their own way to pursue equality

A woman collects fish and sipu at sunset in the Dili District, Timor-Leste. UN Photo/Martine Perret. Photo ID 403761. 09/07/2009. www.unmultimedia.org/photo/A greater recognition of work being done by women in Timor Leste is needed by those in the international community according to an expert in gender equality issues at the University of Ulster.

In the run-up to the presidential elections on March 17th, specialist in violence against women in war-torn areas Aisling Swaine said women in the region have made great changes in the ten years since independence.

“The women there are finding a safe way to make change, there is a really strong women’s network,” she said, speaking before a discussion on international humanitarian law.

“Timor-Leste is a brand new country, and the policy frameworks have to be relevant to women’s lives.”

The island nation of Timor-Leste became independent from Indonesia in 2002, following 25 years of war but instability continued until as recently as 2008 when the president and prime minister were attacked.

A recent government demographic and health survey indicated domestic violence is common, saying the country has “a long history of culturally accepted forms of domestic violence.”

Other commentators including Silvia Cormaci from the International Labour Office (ILO) have noted that sexual assaults often went unpunished during the times of unrest and that laws criminalising domestic violence were first enacted in 2010.

Swaine, who is on the UN IASC Gender Capacity Roster and worked in Timor-Leste for four years, said there has been change but women’s rights as a concept is still new.

“I spent time with the lia nian (elders) who pass judgment in the local courts. They said that before the UN came they didn’t have domestic violence. That was a big moment for me, to see they saw beating your wife as helping her to understand something,” she said.

Swaine said she prefers to use the term “feminisms” rather than a one-size-fits-all approach, saying Timorese women shouldn’t be ignored for not using “the same words or labelling” as the international community.

“We don’t listen enough. We can’t judge them, expectations need time to change. We’ve had a similar thing in Ireland but it was a gradual change between men and women since (joining) the EU,” she said.

And while she said the increased representation of women in politics is positive, she is concerned this change is not yet trickling down to ground level.

Unlike Ireland where gender quotas are still a contentious issue, one in three candidates in the Timorese parliamentary elections later this year must be female.

“That is one level,” Swaine said. “There is more recognition, and I’d be very positive about that. But for the women in the villages who are sleeping on mud floors; their day is about getting a bowl of rice for their kids. That is the reality.”

Dr Aisling Swaine was in Dublin yesterday (March 7) speaking at an Irish Red Cross roundtable on International Humanitarian Law (IHL). Details of the monthly events are on the Irish Red Cross website.

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