Yesterday was International Women’s Day. I read lots of articles about air-brushing and fair pay and shared-representation in parliament. I even wrote some of those stories.
But my heart and mind kept wondering off to Dili. Let me explain.
East Timor is hot. It’s hot and grimy and harsh. The streets fling dust in your face and between your toes and it stays there until you leave.
The entire city is littered with pieces of corrugated iron and stray dogs and children. Multitudes of children. And in a few short years they will become gangs of teenagers that loiter and stare and have not much to do.
I stayed with an expat couple who spent 2013 as aid workers in Dili (one couple among many). The wife worked with young girls who had been sexually abused and subsequently abandoned. The husband taught locals how to build houses.
They lived in a hotel in Dili and I stayed at a guest room across the courtyard. The room was fine. It was equipped with an air conditioner and I ate two eggs for breakfast everyday. Only on one night was I awoken by a cockroach crawling up my top.
The slogan on the back of the staff shirts read: Party hard in Dili or go home. But the girls who wore them had hollow cheeks, empty eyes and swollen, pregnant bellies.
The first few days I spent in Dili were lovely. Rosemary and David took me to the one restaurant that hadn’t left them ill. We drank wine at twilight. I met their incredible expat community. We kayaked in frothy, warm beaches. Watched the musk-flavoured sunrise.
Then I started investigating and filming my story. Violence against women.
It was full on.
I met the girls that Rosemary worked with and sat with them through a craft lesson. We decorated empty food tins with coloured twine. One of the girls had a damaged hand and needed help unfurling the twine.
After class, Rosemary told me the girl’s story. She had been raped by her uncle as a toddler. Repeatedly. It meant she could no longer be sold as a virgin bride – she had been rendered worthless.
In a rage, her father tied her by the wrist in the pig pen and left her there for god knows how long. Her uncle continued to rape her. In the pig pen. With her wrist tied.
She ate the pig feed to survive.
Next I met a legal officer who gave free legal help to women who’d been bashed by their husbands. Many women didn’t know it was against the law. The rest had little or no understanding of the court system.
She told me the story of a woman from a remote district who had no hands, because her husband had hacked them off, just below the elbow. He came home one day, accused her of cheating and attacked her with a machete.
She raised her arm to shield her face as he swung the blade at her. But the machete went straight through it. She watched as her hand thudded to the floor in a pool of blood.
He swiped again and she held up her left arm. Again, the machete hacked straight through it.
He swiped a third time and knocked out several of her teeth and caused permanent damage her eye.
Story after story she told me. Cases like this one. Women attacked with planks of wood. Women left permanently injured. Nearly 40 per cent of women are victims.
She tells me of a well-known saying: Bikan ho kanuru baku malu.
It means a dish and spoon will always hit each other. It’s inevitable. It’s normal, accepted.
Most cases go unreported. The wife does not want to risk abandonment, poverty, death if she speaks out. It’s too high a price to pay. Besides, nearly every single case ends in a suspended sentence, so what’s the point?
Next day, I met with these incredible ladies:
They work at a little building near the main hospital in Dili run by PRADET. It’s called ‘Safe Room’ and it is a sanctuary for women who arrive at hospital, battered, bruised, with nowhere to go.
There was one woman there when I visited. She cried as she described how her husband hit her. Then she started shaking uncontrollably as she told me her fears for her children – left alone in a house with her violent husband.
“I am safe… but my children, I don’t know what will happen to them,” she said, tears literally dripping onto her lap.
I interviewed Natalia de Jesus, a midwife and social worker at the home. She told me how they try to stitch a piece of happiness and hope in the women they care for.
They are fighting a losing battle. More and more women arrive at the door, desperate for help. And thirsting for some gentle kindness and hope.
I interviewed a government minister and the Australian Federal Police. They assured me attitudes are changing, violence decreasing, awareness spreading. They told me of a three year anti-violence campaign. Assured me of its success.
I nodded and desperately hoped to god they were speaking the truth.
So yesterday I guess it’s not surprising that on International Women’s Day my mind kept sneaking off on me. It found it’s way to the ‘Safe House’. It found it’s way to Patricia, sitting with a victim outside a courtroom.
I wonder if they know it was International Women’s Day. I wonder if they would have cared.
“Violence against women persists in every country in the world as a pervasive violation of human rights and a major impediment to achieving gender equality. … [As] long as violence against women continues, we cannot claim to be making real progress towards equality, development and peace.”
– Kofi Annan, 2006