Self-doubt and Hypocrisy.

It’s a funny thing, this whole PhD process.

I seem to spend a huge amount of my time filled with feelings of self-doubt, and by all accounts, I’m not alone.

I’m just waiting for a tap on the shoulder, followed by someone telling me that somebody in admissions made a mistake a few years ago, and I should never have been allowed in.

Friday was one of those days.

How on earth has my research gone from sanitation in developing countries, to foreign aid and violence against women? Is that a sign that I really have no clue what I’m doing? Will my topic changes result in that seemingly inevitable tap on the shoulder?

Then I started wondering why I’m focusing on violence against women in developing countries, when it’s such an enormous problem in right here in Australia.

Violence against women isn’t just a problem of “the other”. At least one woman is killed every week by a current or former partner in Australia. One in three Australian women over the age of 15 has experienced physical or sexual violence in their lives.

I headed home with questions and uncertainty swirling around in my head, wondering how I could write about violence against women in a foreign country without being completely hypocritical.

As I waited at the train station, I watched a group of teenage girls say their farewells before the weekend. I smiled as they hugged each other, squealed over how awesome each other one was, and waved goodbye, shouting declarations of love to each other.

I watched as one of the girls boarded the train, her happy, carefree disposition changing in an instant.

She adopted a demeanour that was all too familiar to me. One I’d seen countless women adopt – one I myself adopt on an almost daily basis.

There was the quick, almost-but-not-quite subtle scan of the carriage. An iPod was quickly retrieved from her bag, the headphones shoved in her ears with expert speed. Head bowed down, shoulders slightly hunched. Arms folded across her chest, holding her school bag a little too tight.

There it was. The defense against Schrödinger’s Rapist.

The girl hastily shuffled past the group of teenage boys sitting to my right.

“Nice tits.”

She kept walking to the other end of the carriage.

The boys laughed, one of them shouting after her to ask why she hadn’t smiled. Couldn’t she take a compliment?

The group of boys could have been no more than fifteen years old.

I turned to them and asked them which part of objectifying someone was a compliment. How was she meant to have reacted, when she may have been scared shitless by a group of guys who were much bigger than her had decided that they had right to comment on her body?

They laughed, told me to lighten up and mind my own business.

I’ve thought about my research all weekend. The incident on the train wasn’t really anything out of the ordinary, but it was also on my mind all weekend.

My PhD research will continue on its current path. I will keep focusing on violence against women, using Timor-Leste as a case study.

But it doesn’t mean I’m a hypocrite.

Violence against women isn’t a problem of “the other”.

It happens in developed countries, and less developed countries. To wealthy women, and not-so-wealthy women.

I’ll keep researching and writing about violence against women. Because it’s something that’s happened to far too many of my friends and my family – both in Australia and overseas. And it’s not just rape or violent beatings. It encompasses so much more, like the harassment of teenage girls on public transport, verbal and emotional abuse, to name just a few examples. And its forms are the same the world over.

I won’t doubt my research anymore.

Because violence against women, in all its insidious forms, is a problem. A global problem.

But that doesn’t mean I won’t keep waiting for that tap on the shoulder.

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Not in my name.

On Saturday, September 7th, 2013, Australia voted to be governed by the Liberal Party, with Tony Abbott at the helm as our nation’s Prime Minister.

I didn’t expect much from a conservative government. At all. What has occurred in the weeks since the new government was sworn in, however, exceeded anything I could have imagined.

In no particular order, here’s some of the disgraceful acts of our current “leaders”:

  • One of the first acts of our new government was to scrap the following ministries: Ministry for Science, Ministry for Climate Change, Ministry for Disabilities, Ministry for Aged Care, Ministry for Higher Education, Ministry for Youth, Ministry for Early Childhood, Ministry for Workplace Relations, Ministry for Mental Health, and the Ministry for Water.
  • The new government’s cabinet has just one woman on the frontbench, down from six under the previous government.
  • On the day following his cabinet announcement, Prime Minister Abbott announced that he would be the “Minister for Women” (because we all need a man to look after those policies and programs that affect us, amirite ladies?).
  • On Friday, September 27th, a boat holding up to 90 asylum seekers sunk between Indonesia and Australia with all on board believed to have drowned. When questioned about the tragic incident the following day, Prime Minister Abbott is alleged to have run away from the media.
  • Cutting funding to the key body that works to minimise the harm caused by drugs and alcohol, forcing it into administration and destroying the progress of decades of research in the area.
  • Slashing 14,000 public sector jobs, including snatching away graduate jobs from those who had already been accepted into programs.
  • Performing a series of backflips on school funding and the Gonski reforms, that seems to have left everyone completely confused about the entire situation.
  • The removal of a large chunk of some of Tony Abbott’s most controversial speeches from his website, including one’s where he denies the man-made impacts on climate change, one where he promised to increase Australia’s foreign aid budget, and one in which he described abortion as “a question of the mother’s convenience”.
  • The entire clusterfuck that has resulted from the silence, inhumane treatment, and sheer mean-spirited treatment of asylum seekers.
  • Prime Minister Abbott’s words of support for Indonesian President Yudhoyono, a man who stands accused of war crimes in West Papua, and supporting crimes against humanity in Timor-Leste.
  • Slashed funding to the Global Fund to fight AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis to just $200 million over three years – well short of the $300 million promised by the previous government.
  • Gifting military hardware to the government of Sri Lanka, despite it being accused of war crimes and of continuing human rights abuses including torture and forced disappearances. When questioned about accusations of torture being levelled at the Sri Lankan government, Prime Minister Abbott said: “we accept that in difficult circumstances difficult things happen”. Because what’s a little torture between friendly nations, right?
  • And, of course, there’s the Timor-Leste spying scandal. You know, that incident where Timor has accused Australia of spying on it during negotiations on the Certain Maritime Arrangements in the Timor Sea (CMAT) treaty and has taken Australia to the Hague for arbitration? And then Australia raided the offices of Timor’s lawyer and cancelled the passport of Timor’s key witness, who just happens to be a former senior Australian Security Intelligence Service who was allegedly involved in the bugging of the Timor cabinet room, a few days before arbitration is due to kick off? Yeah, that one.

They say that you get the government we deserve, but we don’t deserve this. The rest of the world doesn’t deserve this.

This a government that doesn’t care about women, asylum seekers, victims of torture, the sick, the dying, the young, the elderly, the disabled, workers, those with mental health, the environment, international laws, or human rights.

A government is supposed to be representative of the people. Members of Parliament and the Senate are meant to speak for the people. I don’t think they speak for most fair-minded Australians.

They certainly don’t speak for me.

Australia, Timor, and the cycle of fear.

Timor-Leste became a signatory to the United Nations Refugee Convention in December 2002, just seven months after its independence was restored. Despite being a party to the Convention, the process of seeking asylum in Timor is problematic at best, with no system set up for adjudicating asylum claims.

Unlike Australia, Timor-Leste is one of the poorest countries in Asia-Pacific region. Poverty rates are high and even the most basic infrastructure can be lacking in some areas. There are almost no mechanisms in place to support asylum seekers, whether it is via legal assistance or the provision of basic necessities such as food, or shelter. Timor’s small asylum seeker population often struggles to survive on a day-to-day basis.

Earlier this year a group of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar landed in Timor when their boat ran into difficulties. Timorese authorities, it was claimed, turned the group away.  

In response to the incident, former Timorese President and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, José Ramos-Horta said: “If they have nowhere else to go, if they are unwanted in rich Australia, we share with them our homes, for they are people like us, poor, homeless, persecuted. Timor-Leste must never turn its back on people fleeing hunger and wars. We too were refugees once, we fled our country, we fled poverty and persecution and we were sheltered by kind, caring people, who taught us about solidarity, about humanity”.

The Australian government, both present and past, could learn a thing from Mr. Ramos-Horta.

The creation of fear and anxiety in relation to asylum seekers, particularly those who arrive by boat is something that successive Australian governments have excelled at.

We have become a nation that has allowed our government to create fear among us.

We’ve all heard the slogans, slurs and catchphrases from the media, politicians and people on social media. Things like “stop the boats” or “queue jumpers” or “illegal immigrants”. We’ve been told that we’re being flooded by people from faraway lands who are coming here to change our “culture”, steal our jobs, and essentially destroy our country. Our very own Immigration Minister, Scott Morrison, instructed departmental staff and staff at detention centres to publicly refer to asylum seekers as “illegal”, despite the fact that under the UN Refugee Convention, to which Australia is a signatory, everyone has the right to seek asylum from persecution – regardless of their method of arrival.

Regardless of the way in which they travel, those who are seeking asylum have not done anything illegal, yet Scott Morrison’s new mandate will encourage the perpetuation of outright lies. It will aid the continuing cycle of fear.

I need to believe that a part of our nation has been brainwashed, that we’ve allowed ourselves to become part of a horrendous game of political misinformation designed purely for vote-grabbing. I can’t believe that the wider Australian society would accept our current mistreatment of asylum seekers unless they had been conditioned, by both politicians and media, to do so.

Much like asylum seekers in Australia, it would seem that the best hope those in Timor have is to rely on the compassion and sense of political figureheads, like Mr. Ramos-Horta for long-term solutions. To survive on a daily basis, many of them must rely on the kindness of strangers – strangers who often don’t have much themselves. The challenges for asylum seekers in a poverty-stricken country like Timor are huge – lack of employment or social services to assist them is just the start.

Arun, who is seven years old, and his family are among those facing such challenges. They have been stuck in Dili for two years now, unable to seek asylum and in those two years, Arun has not been able to attend school.

A wonderful friend of mine has been working on ways to help Arun and his family. They would like to send him to an English-speaking school in Dili where he can receive an education and have time to just be an ordinary school kid. He will have the chance to learn, to make friends, and to create dreams. The school term commences in December 2013, however to make this dream a reality, they have to raise funds. The fees (which include two months of summer school) are $3,300. There is a school admin fee of $300, textbooks to purchase at a cost of $175, a graduation fee of $100 and a parents and teachers fee of $10. A total of just $3,885 could change Arun’s life.

If you would like to help Arun go to school, you can make a donation to the following account:

Bank: Commonwealth Bank

Account Name: Sara M Webster

BSB: 063 533       Account Number: 1015 2396

My amazing friend, Sara, has requested that donations are made in this way (with your name and ‘Arun’ as the reference number) as it is difficult to cost-effectively transfer money to Timor-Leste. I can personally vouch for Sara, and promise that all funds will be used to help Arun go to school. Sara has also promised to personally respond to each donor with a confirmation that funds have been received.

Maybe I can’t do anything to change the rhetoric in Australia. Maybe I can’t stop the hatred, the misinformation, or the indoctrination. But knowing that there are people like José Ramos-Horta and Sara in the world gives me hope. Hope that all is not lost, hope that some of the propaganda that is so often spouted about asylum seekers is falling on deaf ears, hope that eventually Australia, Timor-Leste and the world will regain some of the humanity that it has lost.

 

 

Fact or fiction? Rumours and revolution.

Timor is home to some truly spectacular things, not the least of which is a rumour mill that would put a high school lunch break to shame.

Among the expat community, the rumours can usually be separated into two categories: gossip (which often leads to whispered discussions about other people in public places, in case someone who knows someone is sitting at the next table), and security messages. In a country with little media coverage that isn’t in Tetun, incidents that might affect personal safety are passed on from foreigner to foreigner, as a matter of courtesy.

To the best of my knowledge, things aren’t all that different among the Timorese people themselves. Or, at least it is on the street I live on. Neighbours swap stories about each other, about what’s going on in the community, and about what’s happening in Timor in general. When they deem it necessary, one of the neighbours will share the more important information with us – like when everyone thought one of the women had paid far too much for her ugly shoes, or when there was a string of violent incidents in Dili and the Police Commissioner had requested that people stay indoors at night.

For those of us who aren’t here with a volunteer agency, such as the Red Cross or Austraining, the little pieces of information we get from others can be crucial. When the Police Commissioner requested that all persons in Dili refrain from going out after dark, I heard about it from an Australian volunteer and a Timorese neighbour. When twenty four inmates, including anti-independence militants, and persons convicted of rape and murder, escaped from a Dili prison last week, I first heard the news from an Australian friend. I later got more details and a security briefing from a Timorese neighbour, and her ten year old daughter. Luckily for me, I have my own Timor family to look out for me and share important safety-related information – especially since there has been no word from the Australian Embassy in Timor (now, according to the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations “the functions of a diplomatic mission consist, inter alia, in representing the sending State in the receiving State; protecting in the receiving State the interests of the sending State and of its nationals, within the limits permitted by international law”… But I think that’s a whole different blog post all together).

There have been whisperings of a call for a revolution in Timor over the last couple of months and today there was to be a televised debate between the leader of those calling for it, Mauk Morak, and the current Prime Minister, Xanana Gusmao. I received a heads-up about possible unrest from a friend who lives just outside of Dili, and also from a taxi driver. As I’ve been writing this post, word has come through that Gusmao has announced his intention to resign in 2015. What this means for stability in Timor is anyone’s guess.

To me, what all of the swirling rumours confirm is the need for a free and open media that is accessible to everyone. An inability to access information – legitimate and verifiable information – will inevitably lead to rumours. Information can change as it is passed from person to person, and there is no place where that is more evident than Dili. There is often no way to discern fact from fiction here, which in situations of insecurity could have devastating impacts.

Achieving “development” doesn’t just require health, education or infrastructure projects. Perhaps one of the things it needs most is information.

 

 

Looking isn’t always seeing

I thought I’d given it to her straight. I mean, it’s no secret that Timor-Leste is a developing country, ranking 134th out of 186 countries on the United Nations Human Development Index in 2013. Australia, by comparison, comes in 2nd.

I hadn’t sugar-coated anything. I’d ‘fessed up about recent security issues and curfews. I’d talked about the poverty, the dustiness of Dili in the dry season, all of it.

I thought I’d painted a pretty good picture, but when my mother came to visit last week she was shocked, to say the least. She found the heat and humidity to be overwhelming. Dili’s seemingly ubiquitous piles of festering garbage horrified her. The ever-present roosters and dogs with their incessant cacophony got the better of her after just one day. And it certainly didn’t help that the day after Mum arrived, word quickly spread that 24 prisoners had escaped from one of Dili’s prisons.

My initial reaction was almost one of personal offence. Of course it’s nothing like Bali. It’s a country that has been ravaged by neglect and poverty, having only emerged from a bloody and brutal period of occupation and civil unrest a few years ago. Heck, the last of the foreign troops only left earlier this year. Timor has essentially only been its own country since the beginning of 2013. What did she expect?

The more I thought about, however, the more I realised that my reaction was probably similar when I first got here. Of course Timor is a country with problems. If I didn’t think there were things that needed improvement, I wouldn’t be doing my research here. We’re all here – my friends, housemates, and almost every other foreigner – because we want to see change. We don’t think Timor can, or should, stay how it is at this very moment.

To be honest though, I don’t really notice the rubbish anymore (until there’s a dirty nappy being eaten by a dog, which happens more often than I care to admit). The omnipresent sickly looking dogs are now just part of the landscape. To me, it stands out more when the kids are clean; a nice change from their daily slightly-grubby look. As for the roosters, well… that’s a different story. I wouldn’t care in the slightest if they all dropped dead tomorrow. In fact, today would work better for me. Then maybe I could get a solid night sleep.

I don’t think it matters what an individual person is doing – whether it be working, researching, or something else entirely – living in a developing country isn’t easy. On top of being out of your comfort zone, there are little daily frustrations to contend with, and sometimes there are things that are so big that you’re not sure if anyone will ever be able to fix them.

On top of the trivial things, like intermittent telephone and internet services, the stifling heat and a lack of privacy or personal space, I’ve spent a significant portion of my time in Timor talking and reading about violence against women and children. I’ve read, heard and seen horrific acts of inexcusable brutality. For other people here, it could be stories of sick and dying people, or spending every day dealing with the bureaucracy that can stand in the way of improving the quality of life for so many people.

The bleakness may all be part and parcel of working in development, but that doesn’t make it any easier to deal with. We all have different ways of coping – for me, it seems to involve a little more drinking, a lot more smoking, making wildly inappropriate jokes and ranting at the top of my lungs about the godforsaken roosters.

After Mum’s reactions during her visit, I wondered if I’d added another coping mechanism to my list: selective ignorance. Maybe I’d chosen to ignore the filth, the malnourished kids, the flea-ridden dogs, and the “discipline” that is outright physical abuse. Maybe ignoring it all makes living here just a little bit easier. Maybe if I ignore the smaller things, the things I see on a daily basis, it will make the bigger things, like security issues or hearing stories of violent rapes, just a little bit easier to deal with.

After Mum left, I noticed all the things she’d pointed out – the rubbish, the smell, the dogs, and the blatant poverty – all of it. And I realised that these things will continue to exist whether I acknowledge them or not. Ignoring them might help me in the short-term, but it won’t help to fix the problems, it won’t make them magically disappear.

Considering the recent and predicted upcoming unnecessary cuts to Australia’s aid budget (and the absorption of AusAID into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade), maybe the best thing I can do is to look – to really see the problems that are right on Australia’s doorstep, and to keep sharing them with as many people as possible.

Elections: Who cares about lives when you can download a movie in 60 seconds, right?

On the eve of the 2013 Australian Federal Election, politics seems to be on a lot of people’s minds. And rightly so. In a few hours, Aussie’s will head to the polls to cast their votes. My vote was cast last week, at the Australian Embassy in Dili.

It’s a strange thing to vote from overseas. It’s even stranger to vote in a country like Timor-Leste – a country that not so long ago cast their votes for their first ever independent government. For Australian’s, voting is sometimes an inconvenience. For the Timorese, it’s a privilege and a right that they take seriously. It’s a right that they achieved after a long and brutal fight for independence from the occupation of the Indonesians.

Watching the last few weeks of the campaign from afar and from a developing country no less, has been both a challenge and a relief. It’s a relief to be slightly removed from the negativity that campaigns bring, but it’s also highlighted the stark differences between “developed” and “developing”.

While Aussie’s bicker over the best way to achieve super-fast internet, I am paying amounts unaffordable to most Timorese for an internet connection that is dial-up speed most of the time.

In Australia, discussions of who offers the best paid parental leave scheme are abundant. In Timor, maternal and infant mortality rates are among the highest in the world. And if you survive the first year of life, there’s a huge chance that you won’t survive the next four, with the under-5 mortality rate at 130 per 1000 live births.

While around half of the population of Timor lives below the national poverty line of US$0.55 a day, Australian’s are asking who will give them the biggest tax cuts, or more financial assistance for raising their children. Heck, vaccinate your kids in Australia and the current government will GIVE YOU MONEY! In Timor, less than half the population has had the full range of World Health Organisation-recommended immunizations and deaths from polio and measles are common.

As some Australian’s bemoan the so-called Carbon Tax, Timor is being dramatically effected by climate change with rising sea levels that are threatening the coastal populations, dry seasons that are lasting longer than ever and damaging crops, and wet seasons that are much wetter than before, leading to flooding and landslides.

The differences are stark, and Timor-Leste is just an hour’s flight away from Darwin.

The Coalition, if elected, will cut the aid budget by a staggering $4.5 billion dollars. The Labor Party has not even come close to its aid budget promises and made cuts in the last budget.

Yes, the differences in our two countries are astounding, particularly given the fact we’re on each other’s doorsteps.

Apparently, Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott just don’t care.

But, hey, as long as we have speedy internet, right?

Truth and Imagination

“Everything to be imagined is an image of truth”

–          William Blake

Timor-Leste, to me, is a like a book. It’s filled with stories, just waiting to be told. But like a book, Timor should not be judged by its cover.

When I first started this blog, I decided that it would not have photos.

There would be no shots of Timor’s beautiful landscapes.

No pictures of the burned out ruins that are scattered throughout Dili as constant reminders of a violent past.

No snaps of the cheeky smiles of the kids in my street, my neighbourhood, or anywhere else in the tiny half-island nation.

Sure, I’ve posted some on Facebook. Who wouldn’t want to brag about eating pancakes on a stretch of white sand with clear blue water and palm trees in the background? But not here. 

I’ve been asked a couple of times in the last few days why there isn’t a single photo on the blog. And it’s because, for me, photos will never do the subject justice. They show only the surface, allowing for judgements and preconceptions. They can rarely capture the beauty, the pain, the joy, or the devastation.

Photos might be able to capture a moment of reality, but they don’t always capture the truth.

I’ve got countless photos from my time in Timor. And I’m sure that many of my photos are almost identical to the photos others have taken. But the moments were all different. Different people, different times.

Words, however, get a little closer. They allow for truth, but also – any maybe more importantly – they allow for imagination. They allow you to look beyond the scars of a nation that has suffered so much and see beneath the surface. They allow for the important details; the suffering that was and the hope that now is. You get the true stories, but the physical attributes of a person or a location can be left to the imagination.

The physical is not what’s important. I find that more often than not, my imagination conjures up images that are more beautiful than reality. And I believe that what my imagination conjures up is the truth. If my preconceived notions of beauty aren’t allowed to take flight, if I can imagine beauty, it exists.

My blog might not always be aesthetically pleasing. But neither is Timor. Looks aren’t what matters. Truth matters.

The contents of this blog are the truth, or at least my truth.

This blog, like Timor, are the contents of the story. The cover doesn’t matter.