Rebel Women Fight For A Future

The Age

Wednesday December 6, 1995

Sue Neales

Twenty years after the Indonesian invasion of East Timor, Sue Neales finds a new generation of Timorese women preparing, against the odds, to assert their independence.

LITTLE Eliza is just three years old. At first glance, with her black, curly hair, cheeky smile and pretty dress, it seems as if her country's tragedy may have passed her by.

But in East Timor, 20 years after the invasion, occupation and subsequent integration by Indonesia, appearances can be deceptive.

Eliza is the youngest occupant of East Timor's biggest orphanage, situated in the beautiful eastern mountains at Venilale. Her ``brothers" and ``sisters" are 127 other orphans who share a bunk-filled dormitory run by Salesian Catholic nuns.

Eliza's mother abandoned her after she was born. Her father was an Indonesian soldier, and her birth the result of a violent, but not unusual, rape in a bamboo village hut.

Already Eliza is learning how to clean the rice each day.

Soon she will be big enough to pound the corn, feed the pigs and help to prepare the meals along with the rest of the children that keep the orphanage in food.

At night, the dormitory is restless. Many of the children are still haunted by the terror of their early years. Most lost their parents in the early and mid-'80s when hundreds of Timorese families who had fled to the mountains and forests after the invasion were killed in bombing raids and shootings.

Others had fathers who disappeared in East Timor, a euphemism for men and boys arrested by the military and never seen again.

Many other parents who returned to their villages after hiding out in the mountains later died from illnesses, including malaria and tuberculosis. Government medical services are few, especially in areas where resistance is strong, and food production remains disrupted.

Sister Marlene Bautista, a young Filipino-born American nun from Oregon who runs the Venilale mission, with its orphanage and schools, remembers the horror of those days.

In October 1988, when the mission had only been open for two days, a local priest came down after visiting rebel families in the mountains with nine babies and toddlers in his arms.

They were the orphanage's first unexpected residents.

``We put the nine little ones down to sleep in the one big bed, said goodnight and turned out the light," recalls Sister Marlene. ``But by morning the bed was empty they were scattered around the house and under furniture, because they were used to sleeping under rocks.

``And they weren't like normal little children. All day they would be unnaturally quiet; they would never laugh, or play or move. It was because they had been told not to make a sound in the forest. But every night they would wake up screaming not for their mothers, but for rice; in their nightmares, they were always hungry."

A woman's life has never been easy in East Timor, even before the Indonesian invasion on 7 December, 1975. Until recently, most of the province's 650,000 people were subsistence farmers, living in small bamboo villages that lacked power, reliable road access and even basic education facilities.

A woman was expected to marry at the age of 15 or 16 in an arranged union, with a bride price of about three buffalo, a coral necklace and $100 paid to her parents. She was expected to cut wood, wash clothes, work in the field, cook meals and look after numerous babies. Often girls were not sent to school.

In the mid-'80s, with the Indonesian presence in East Timor almost permanent, life began to change. Timorese women and their families lived in fear of beatings, rape and death. But there were contradictions. The Indonesians also built good roads mainly to aid troop movement and introduced compulsory education for children.

As the world turned its attention to the suffering of East Timor, aid money and assistance poured in, especially from the Catholic Church (95 per cent of Timorese are Catholic).

About half the country's schools are now independent Catholic; the rest are run by the Indonesian Government.

When Sister Marlene arrived in Venilale in 1988, she was shocked at the limited future facing the next generation of Timorese girls.

``For so many years, the women in this country have been ordered about and expected to do all the menial jobs. I found they had become resigned to their situation," she says. ``Traditionally, girls have been taught they are inferior. Within the family, their opinions were never asked or valued, so many don't have views and opinions on things like politics.

``And now, since the Indonesian regime, most of the women and young girls have come into contact with brutality, injustice and loss of family. So they see that to survive, it's safer not to have an opinion."

Sister Marlene, familiar with the US feminist revolution of the '70s and '80s, faced a dilemma. Even as a nun and with her electric guitar and youthful energy, she certainly defies the stereotype she believed the women of East Timor deserved better.

In just seven years, Sister Marlene, 34, has improved their opportunities. Now Venilale has two centres of activity the military and police post at one end of the main street, and the Salesian school and orphanage complex at the other.

As well as a primary and high school for girls and boys, the town has East Timor's only technical school for young women, started by Sister Marlene. About 150 Timorese, aged between 18 and 20, learn how to type, use computers, cook and sew for commercial gain.

Much of the equipment in the school has been donated by the Australian Embassy in Jakarta. The industrial kitchen is from Canada, the new school building from Germany, and the orphanage from the US.

Overseas sponsors also pay the $300 annual cost for many of the young women to attend the school. Sister Bautista admits that she and her colleague, the Italian doctor and nun Sister Alma, have persuaded friends and relatives at home to fund individual girls' education.

Training enables the young women to gain jobs in hospitals, hotels, airlines, restaurants and offices.

``Until now their career choices have been limited to virtually nothing," says Sister Bautista. ``Just having babies and working in the fields.

``The purpose of the school is integral education: to educate the spirit, mind and body, to teach skills and extend the girls' choices so that they can find a job and a career if they want.

``And the parents are happy because it means that, with more education and skills, the bride price for their daughters will go up from three buffalo to 10, or the girls will be able to earn money in the future to support the family."

But Sister Bautista agrees that the result is much more than skills training. For example, sex education is taboo in most families; most of the girls' mothers are uneducated and superstitious.

Girls who arrive at the Venilale school typically know nothing about puberty. Teenage pregnancies are common, with most girls already pregnant when they marry their arranged husband.

Other girls become pregnant at 15 to avoid an unattractive arranged marriage.

As well as teaching at the school, Sister Alma runs a daily clinic for nearby villagers, with many women walking for up to three days to attend her sessions. The alternatives are Indonesian Government clinics, staffed by male doctors. There is evidence that government doctors have been placing long-term contraceptive implants in the arms of Timorese women without their consent, to control the indigenous population.

Sister Marlene says her work is extraordinarily rewarding, but the stakes are high. As well as offering her students a different life and place in society to their mothers, she wants to ensure that East Timorese people avoid becoming an inferior, second-class race in their own country.

``This is no hotbed of radicalism," she says. ``We are trying to teach our Timorese youth to think intelligently and independently, to have minds of their own, and to have opinions, so they can make choices, face life and contribute to a better society. Independent thought doesn't mean we are pro-independence."

© 1995 The Age

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