Women are also resistance heroes

When Indonesian forces invaded Timor-Leste in 1975, Maria De Fatima Kalcona hid in the jungle with resistance fighters, but after years on the move, and hobbled by a gunshot wound, she was eventually captured in 1979.

The punishment that she and other women in her position received is hard to justify, or even discuss, she says. “We were abused by Indonesian soldiers in every way.”

But uncomfortable truths about rape, often perpetrated with the utmost brutality, should not stop history from being told. “We want the young generation to know about our history. Usually they know only about the male fighters, the male heroes.”

Timor-Leste was colonized by Portugal for centuries and then occupied by Indonesia before it achieved independence in 1999 and, after a period of UN administration, self-rule in 2002.

Many current national leaders were key figures in the guerilla fight against the Indonesian army, which was responsible for the deaths of an estimated 180,000 Timorese during its 1975-1999 occupation.

Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao, and newly-elected President Jose Maria de Vasconcelos (better known by his former nom du guerre Taur Matan Ruak), led Timor-Leste’s main guerrilla force and are still regarded as heroes of independence.

But women who joined the struggle find it harder to gain recognition. “We want voiceless heroes to be heard,” says Lurdes Alves de Araujo, secretary general of Organizasaun Popular da Mulher de Timor (OPMT), a women’s activist group that is compiling a book from the contributions of some one hundred women who took part in the liberation movement.

She says the suffering and sacrifices of the predominantly male guerilla forces need not be diminished for the often less visible contributions of female resistance members to be better acknowledged. Araujo was a student activist during the occupation and was jailed three times.

Stigmatizing violence against women


Photo: Brendan Brady/IRIN
Many former resistance fighters are now in government

OPMT’s narrative project may help highlight aspects of Indonesia’s 24-year occupation of Timor Leste that have received little attention.

Massacres, destruction of property and mass relocations were among the main tools of war used by the Indonesian army and local militias it commanded. But so too was rape, according to researchers who have documented frequent use of rape, including gang rape and sexual slavery by Indonesian and militia forces during the occupation, and say sexual violence was used to destroy the very core of Timorese society.

A 2001 report by Forum Komunikasi Untuk Perempuan Loro Sae (Fokupers), a local NGO, said rape was often perpetrated in a “planned, organized and sustained” manner.

The project could also help stigmatize violence against women by connecting abuses by Indonesian soldiers with current domestic violence, which is often ignored or regarded as acceptable.

“Recognition of women’s [contributions] and what happened to women during the conflict is a key part of transforming Timor-Leste’s society today,” says Galuh Wandita, a Jakarta-based associate of the International Centre for Transitional Justice, which focuses on justice issues in Timor-Leste and Indonesia.

“Many of the challenges that Timorese women experience today are related to the same root causes of gender violations they experienced during the conflict,” she notes.

The widespread rape and sexual assault of women went largely unpunished during the military occupation, and reinforced a culture in which men hold power, according to a 2009 study backed by the UN Development Fund for Women. 

Many Timorese women see domestic violence as an accepted part of married life today, with a large number believing their husbands had the right to hit them if they disobeyed.

Domestic abuse has been criminalized since 2009 but observers say the legislation is seldom enforced.

Maya Reis, 54, a female parliamentarian who served in anti-occupation activist networks, said, “If young women can see the participation of women in the past, it can motivate them to push for more freedom today.” Araujo says 500 copies of the book will initially be published and distributed to schools.

bb/ds/he