When I was younger, the worst thing that my Mum could say to me was that I had disappointed her. Sure, angry was bad, but disappointed was so much worse. Anger was usually the result of something unexpected; disappointment usually meant that I had done something that she thought I was smart enough not to do. Or, that I hadn’t done something that I should have done. Whatever the case the phrase “I’m not angry, just disappointed” (which was usually said in a quiet and measured tone) could strike a blow that was greater than any teenager-vs.-mother screaming match.
Now, while I don’t have children myself, I was recently disappointed in a way that I imagine my Mum was when I got caught doing something wrong.
I was disappointed in Timor.
I’ve debated with myself for weeks over whether or not to write this blog. And I don’t really know why. Perhaps it was because I didn’t want to admit that Timor – a country that I have called home for much of this year – had left me frustrated and disillusioned. I didn’t want to share the dark and nasty side of a nation that, for the most part, I adore.
Or, perhaps, it was because I was disappointed in myself.
As a result of my crazy internal dialogue, this is probably going to be a somewhat convoluted entry. And it will likely raise more questions than answers. But, I decided that life isn’t all rainbows, puppies and unicorns and that I should share the bad along with the good.
A few weeks ago, it seemed to me that Timor was filled with violence. Yes, I admit that two days at a conference about family violence and weeks of reading about sexual and gender-based violence may have given me a skewed sample. But the violence wasn’t confined to documents or a conference room. It was everywhere – in the news, on the streets, even in the yard of neighbours.
I’m all too aware that sexual/gender-based/domestic/intimate partner/gang violence isn’t unique to Timor. It’s everywhere. A recent World Health Organization report found that violence against women is a “global health problem of epidemic proportions”.
I wasn’t under some crazy misapprehension that Timor was somehow exempt from violence against women, children, or anyone. With its brutally violent not-so-distant past, how could it be? Timor is a nation that has suffered decades of violence at the hands of foreign occupiers and its own people.
What I didn’t expect was how open and how seemingly accepted it was.
One of the things I’ve discovered is a necessity while you’re in a developing country context is to lose the Western mentality. Comparisons with home aren’t helpful and you shouldn’t always think of things as strange or wrong, just different. But that’s often easier said than done. For me, it’s been especially hard when it comes to violence in Timor.
A 2013 study found that 37.6% of Timorese women said that they have experienced physical violence. 3.4% said they had experienced sexual violence. Women who had never been married were half as likely to have had experienced physical violence and 60% less likely to have had experienced sexual violence. It was also found that as a women’s level of education increased so too did the likelihood of her being abused, with it being suggested that the abuse may be a punishment for breaking gender norms.
Estimates for the number of children who are victims of sexual violence are hazy at best. The Judicial System Monitoring Program found that 49 cases of incest had been reported during the period from January 2010, to June 2012. A representative from the National Commission for the Rights of the Child suggested that rates of incest were higher as most families would not prosecute due to the shame and stigma attached to such crimes.
I attended a two-day conference on family violence in Timor-Leste several weeks ago that saw me filled with hope at some moments and despair at others. There were moments where I witnessed impassioned speeches about the need to end violence against women and children, the need for greater penalties for perpetrators, and the efforts that are being made to combat the horrendous rapes and violent beatings that occur. There were mentions of international treaties, anti-violence laws and successful projects. The participants were overwhelmingly women, representing NGOs, legal organisations, law enforcement officers and members of the judicial system. Timor, it was concluded, needs to address the issues faced by its women and children, in particular.
There was hope. There was willingness and drive for change.
On the flip side, there were moments where I wondered how a country that has endured so much violence over the years that is seems to have become normalised, could ever break the cycle. How do you change an entire population? Where do you even begin to start? And the biggest question of all: is it even possible?
The most disappointing, infuriating moments for me came not from members of the general public, but from senior members of the Timorese legal system – both men and women. The exact same people who are meant to play a key role in ending sexual and gender-based violence were the ones who were perpetuating the problem. To hear the suggestion, from a very senior (male) member of the Timorese judicial system, that it needs to be remembered that Timorese men will always be “a bit above” women in society was frustrating. To hear, from a female judge, that they would like to impose harsher sentences in cases of sexual and gender-based violence, but cannot do so because they must account for “public opinion” was maddening.
There were questions raised about whether jail is a punishment or a kind of reward for perpetrators, how best to deal with a lack of resources on the part of the police and of support service providers, and what role the Catholic Church plays when it comes to ending abusive marriages. I was frustrated by each of these questions. Is the poverty in Timor so great that jail, where you get meals and a bed, can be viewed as a reward? Why has the Government failed to adequately support the police? How on earth can religion be so deeply ingrained that a woman would stay with an abusive husband, simply because the Church says that only death can part them? And how can the Church ignore women in danger, allowing them to believe that remaining in a violent situation is their only option?
Through it all, I sat silently.
By far, the most mind-blowing moment of the conference came when a male audience member raised a question during discussion time. He wondered why women are protected under Timor’s domestic violence laws, yet there is no law that protects men from provocation. He wondered why women would be allow to anger their husbands by not cooking, cleaning or looking after the children, causing their husbands to beat them. How, he wondered, were women allowed to get away with it, to be protected under the law, but men could not be protected from provocation? Where were the laws that demanded that a wife not cause her husband to hit her?
The Timorese attendees giggled, likely out of nervousness or embarrassment.
I sat silently.
I wanted to respond. Not only to the questions of provocation, but to all of the questions. I wanted to tell the female judge that she has the power to change public opinion and impose harsher sentences. I wanted to tell the Catholic priest that was present that his religion, the institution he belongs to needs to move into the 21st century, step up, and stop with the bullshit of “til-death-do-we-part-even-if-you-rape-or-beat-me”. I wanted to tell the prosecutor that women and men should be equal, regardless of his opinion, and tell him that he was part of the problem. And most of all, I wanted to ask the young male audience member where he had learnt that men are allowed to hit women, simply because they believe they are provoked.
But I didn’t say a word. It didn’t seem like my place to speak, no matter how much I wanted to.
Timor had disappointed me.
Less than a week later, I was looking out of the window of a first floor apartment. A young boy, no more than 4 years old, stood naked next to a tub of water in the yard next door. A woman, that I can only assume was his mother, approached him. I thought she was giving him a bath. I watched as she picked up a stick. I kept watching as she hit his bare skin with it. Over and over and over again. I listened to the sound of the stick slicing through the air, the “crack” it made as it hit his back, his legs, his arms, even the back of his head.
I watched in silence.
And then I did the thing I never thought I’d do.
I walked away.
I didn’t say a word. I watched as a small child was physically beaten, I turned and walked away and I tried to pretend it didn’t happen.
I had disappointed myself.
If such a vicious act had occurred in front of me in Australia, I would have stepped in. I would have called the police, spoken out, done something. Here in Timor, I didn’t do a thing. I didn’t think I should. It wasn’t my place. It’s not my country, not my culture. Do I, as a foreigner, have any right at all to act, or even to comment? I don’t know. I really don’t know. I know that such behaviour is not okay. I know that at some point, cultural relativism should be thrown out as an excuse.
Maybe it wouldn’t have been appropriate to say anything either at the conference, or to the woman I witnessed who was dishing out such a harsh “punishment”. But why did I allow my status as a foreigner to stop me? How did that make the situation different? And even if I had spoken up, would it have made any difference at all?
I don’t know if there’s anything I could have done, or if I should have done anything at all. I wished I had, though. But maybe the best thing I can do for now is my PhD research, in the hope that it can make a small difference, somehow, somewhere.
I do know that I’m not angry at Timor, or at myself. I’m just disappointed.
 As mentioned in the report, this figure is likely to be underreported due to the stigma attached to sexual violence.
 Taft, A. & L. Watson (2013) “Violence Against Women in Timor-Leste. Secondary Analysis of the 2009-10 Demographic Health Survey”, Mother and Child Health Research, La Trobe University, pp.19-20.