In the southeast corner of East Timor lies a mountainous, well-forested region known as Iliomar. Each year in Iliomar, the East Timor Women’s Organisation (Organização da Mulheres Timorense) commemorates the death of one of its heroines on International Women’s Day, 8 March.
Olympia da Costa, Hilda Madeira and Balbina da Conceiçao were members of a three-woman courier and support cell. The women delivered information and supplies to the armed resistance in the jungle. In early 1980, according to the military historian Brigadier (retd) Ernest Chamberlain, the 21-year old Olympia was arrested and brutalised by the Indonesian military:
Olympia was tortured and raped. Afterwards, she was stripped to the waist and, wearing only a very short nylon shift, was paraded on foot through the six villages … Two of her senior male relatives held her hands … and at each village she was forced to warn villagers of the penalties for resistance and supporting [the resistance]. Later that evening, she escaped from [the barracks], but was recaptured at her parent’s home [where]she had tried to gather clothing before fleeing into the jungle …She was bayoneted in the throat and died.
Olympia da Costa’s martyrdom makes harrowing reading, but it must be read by those wishing to understand the role played by women during the East Timorese liberation struggle. As the scholar-activist Emma Franks notes, rape had ‘become formalised into the occupation strategy as a specific tool used by the Indonesian state to attack women’. They were targeted not because they were passive victims but precisely because they were active resisters. In the early years of the occupation, their traditional knowledge of medicines and midwifery proved invaluable to the guerrilla fighters and the internally displaced population in the mountains.
Maria de Fatima Pinto, a key figure in the resistance to the occupation, reminds us that the ‘participation of women was integral at every stage’. Through the structure of the Popular Organisation of Timorese Women (OPMT), women ‘bore arms alongside men, provided logistical support, carried out a broad range of clandestine political and armed resistance activities, as well as taking primary responsibility for the well-being of family and community development often in the absence of men’.
When required, women took up arms. As Franks records, many ‘guerrilla detachments in the interior of East Timor [were]commanded by women’. Olympia’s comrade Balbina da Conceiçao was one such female fighter. Balbina spent the occupation as an armed fighter in the mountains, and nowadays is one of the directors of KOVEFOKTIL (Cooperative of Veteran Women, Widows and Orphans Timor Leste). This group is attempting to deal with the new challenges presented by East Timor’s independence, such as the need to empower women economically in a culture that remains deeply patriarchal.
KOVEFOKTIL conducts income-generating activities by utilising the skills that have clothed and protected communities for centuries. By encouraging the weaving of traditional cloth for contemporary use, it is also encouraging women to break the cycle of illiteracy and poverty. KOVEFOKTIL focuses on empowering women, particularly those who were widowed during the twenty-four year occupation. In doing so, it tries to reduce the gender imbalance by ensuring that the benefits flow directly to their families and strengthens their communities’ socio-economic base.
KOVEFOKTIL works closely with an Australian voluntary organisation — East Timor Women Australia (ETWA) — in a joint project to train East Timorese women to make handcrafts and find markets for their products overseas. The practical nature of this project derives its impetus from the recognition that women are not homogenous but are affected by many factors, notably class, education, age and so on.
Catherine Scott, of the Catholic Institute for International Relations, points out that ‘in East Timor, the majority of women are illiterate, uneducated subsistence farmers. The majority live in rural areas, in an overwhelmingly patriarchal society shaped by centuries of indigenous cultures and religious beliefs, and influenced also by the overlaying gendered impact of Portuguese colonialism and (mostly) Catholic Christianity. They have been marginalised from politics, and collective community agency has been hampered not only by cultural norms, but also by colonial and neo-colonial obstacles, felt most acutely over the last twenty five years during the suffocating and brutal Indonesian occupation.’
Given these facts, KOVEFOKTIL and ETWA focus on direct economic empowerment of women, while, of course, supporting the elimination of domestic violence and the importance of having more women parliamentarians.
The example set by women’s courage during the occupation and the collaborative approach of KOVEFOKTIL is encouraging for younger generations of women vying for status in a free East Timor. Three generations from more than seven districts in East Timor work to ensure that KOVEFOKTIL is sustainable in the long term, nullifying the myths of generational and geographic disputes.
This remarkable cooperation has resulted time and again in the equitable distribution of profits from ETWA’s fundraisers to KOVEFOKTIL members. Thus begins a process of mutual solidarity, confidence and cross-cultural understanding between ETWA and KOVEFOKTIL.
KOVEFOKTIL also aims to maintain East Timorese cultural practices through the production of Tais (traditional cloth). When designing a program to support rural women in Iliomar, Balbina highlighted the parallel benefits of economic and cultural development. By encouraging women to produce Tais using traditional spinning, dying and weaving techniques, East Timorese cultural practices are maintained, and the sale of the Tais will improve the life chances of women and their families.
ETWA were fortunate to have representatives at the inauguration meetings in April 2004, and assisted KOVEFOKTIL with finances to purchase the first batch of traditional Tais later that year.
This year, the women of Iliomar once again commemorated Olympia da Costa’s death on International Women’s Day. The remembrance transported many of them back to the horrific pain of the occupation. For others, like Balbina, Olympia’s determination continues to spur their commitment to a new struggle in the contested space of economic and social emancipation of women. All strength to them.
E. Chamberlain, The struggle in Iliomar: Resistance in rural East Timor, 2003, ISBN 0 9750350 0 2.
M. de Fatima Pinto, Mobilising women for the sustainable rebuilding of East Timor Sustaining our Communities conference, Adelaide, 3-6 March 2002.
E. Franks, Women and Resistance in East Timor, Women’s Studies International Forum, Vol 19, Nos 1/2 pp 155-168, 1996.
C. Scott, Are women included or excluded in Post-Conflict Reconstruction?: A Case study from East Timor, CIIR, 30 June 2003.
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