The voice of the Alola Foundation

Focus on Rights lecture series

Voice of Alola: From Juliana to Helena

Delivered by Kirsty  Sword Gusmao - First Lady of East Timor
21 April 2005

Presented by
The Bob Hawke Prime Ministerial Centre at UniSA
In association with
UN Association of Australia, SA
Australian Institute of International Affairs, SA
and Australia East Timor Friendship Association (SA) Inc

Access Audio Transcript

To the Bob Hawke Prime Ministerial Centre of University of South Australia, the United Nations Association of Australia, (South Australia Branch), the Australian Institute of International Affairs, (South Australia Branch) and the Australian East Timor Friendship Association (South Australia) Inc., I express my thanks for organising tonight’s function. I can tell you that my husband and I deeply appreciate the continued interest and support in our new nation’s struggle to consolidate its economic and political independence.

Tonight I am meeting many new friends of Timor-Leste, and catching up with old ones, particularly from the Friendship Association; an Association that along with many others including myself, struggled against the odds.

Together we came through. And I thank you for the many years of support.

I confess that I have never met the Centre’s namesake, but like all Australians I feel I know him well.

My background in the ‘East Timor’ struggle has given me the opportunity to know many Australian leaders, if not personally.

Today I meet leaders from all around the world, but the world I inhabit after the formal occasions are finished, is that of women and children, and that is what my presentation will focus on.

Tonight I want to give a voice to the women and children of Timor-Leste; to tell you about their world through the lives of two women called Juliana and Helena.

The lives of Juliana and Helena and their children are real - they are not just statistics, although their lives are etched in my nation’s shocking statistics, as one of the poorest in the region.

Who are Juliana and Helena? Why have I picked them to tell you about all women in Timor-Leste? I have chosen them not only because their lives tell a story of the experience of being a Timorese woman in a time of conflict and a time of peace respectively, but also because they are like living emblems of the organization – the Alola Foundation – which I established in 2001 to draw attention to the issues affecting the way women live in Timor-Leste.

Juliana is where we began – with a focus on sexual violence and principally that experienced by women at the height of political conflict – and Helena and her concerns reflect the issues which are priority ones for our organization today i.e. economic survival and the health of mothers and their children.

Juliana dos Santos, is also called Alola, her family nickname. She is my Foundation’s namesake.

I first came to know of her appalling situation when back in 2001 her parents found their way to me, not then the First Lady, to ask my help to free her from her abductor. Juliana at age 15 had been brutally kidnapped by Igidio Manek, vice-commander of the Laksaur militia group, and taken across the border into West Timor as a kind of war prize or trophy. Shortly before he took Juliana away, Manek is thought to have murdered Juliana’s 13 year old brother and her only sibling, Carlos.

This happened in 1999. Juliana was a child. It is unthinkable that even though her whereabouts were always known, no one or no authority was able to return her to her family. Is she happy? Well the question doesn’t apply somehow? Does she suffer from Stockholm Syndrome? Almost certainly from our assessment. Can we do anything? Well it is difficult. Will her abductor-husband suffer for his crimes? Probably not. Can you imagine what her life must be like?

Who is Helena? Helena Pereira Maia is a 35 year old widow, mother of five children, living in Beto West Dili, without material comfort, in fact just managing to survive. She earns between US$1.50 and US$2 per day from making alterations to and repairing clothing. This barely feeds her family. This is her constant worry, to get enough each day to feed her children. Can you imagine what life must be like for her?

I don’t have to imagine this every day, as I see it every day. I see women like Juliana, scarred from years of conflict. How does she find her way back to her homeland and her family, in a geographical and an emotional sense. I see women like Helena, whose survival is a daily and constant struggle. What does Helena do if her children are sick? What does she do if they need medicine, for which she has no money? How does she even get her sick children to the Hospital, without money for a taxi?

For International Women’s Day this year, I made an executive decision, one of the few I have taken upon myself as First Lady, to grant the International Women’s Day award to a regular Timorese woman. I enlisted the help of the Coordinator of our National Breastfeeding Association of East Timor to help me to identify a worthy recipient. She came up with Helena who is a member of our Bebonuk Mother Support Group. Our Mother Support Groups are village-based groupings of women who work voluntarily on promoting breastfeeding in the community. Carla and I conducted a series of interviews with Helena, both to learn more about her life story, but also to collect some quotations which would form the basis of the visual presentation I will share with you later. I think I expected and half hoped that in those interviews Helena would make some grand and meaningful pronouncements on the status of women in East Timorese society and express her aspirations and dreams for all East Timorese women. What became immediately evident from talking to Helena was that not only was she unable to articulate any hopes for all East Timorese women, she hardly dares to dream for herself or for her family, so preoccupied is she with daily survival.

Alola’s situation inspired me to action and subsequently to establishing the Alola Foundation? The name honours Juliana and all the Julianas, not only from Timor Leste. Juliana’s parents warmly endorsed the naming of the Alola Foundation and we have an enduring relationship with her family, who are left deeply traumatised.

Helena inspires me to action, for different reasons. Juliana’s was rage at what she and countless other known and unknown Timorese women had suffered. Helena’s is quiet despair that women’s lives are so hard.

In July 2004 Rede Feto, an umbrella body for some 16 women’s organizations, organised the Second Women’s Congress with 240 women delegates from the 13 Timor-Leste districts. The outcome of this gathering was a Platform of Action that articulated seven priority areas for Timor-Leste’s development. These were Health, Education, Economy (including Agriculture), Justice, Culture, Politics, and Media, Communication and Infrastructure. These areas are consistently identified as important to the community of Timor-Leste.

There was a nation wide consultation in 2000 the outcome of which was a ‘National Development Plan’, endorsed at the highest levels of Government and State, and it too identified these as priority areas. Education and health repeatedly came up and come up as key areas of concern. These are areas that we at Alola Foundation have targeted.

In focusing on women and children, I am pleased to say that the Government of Timor-Leste has ratified the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).

This combined with the first Constituent Assembly having elected twenty-two women Members out of a total of eighty-eight bodes well. I would also like to say that this representation has impacted on the overall national policy framework, but like many countries I would have to say it has not yet.

However, we start with a significant handicap. Least Developed Country (LDC) status, endemic poverty, ruined infrastructure and a real lack of capacity in many areas, means we have a long way to go.

Roughly half of Timorese women are illiterate. Timor-Leste has one of the highest fertility rates in the world, 7.5 children per family and also one of the highest rates of infant and maternal mortality; women die giving birth and 12% of children do not make their fifth birthday.

Giving birth to a new baby is a source of joy and hope to families around the world. Nevertheless, in countries such as Timor-Leste where health services are limited and home births are the norm – only 10% of pregnant women give birth in health facilities – it is also poses a significant risk to the life of mother and baby.

In Timor-Leste the absence of skilled birth attendants, complications in labour and delivery, combined with poor health status, can be fatal. And indeed they often are.

Traditional practices and belief systems also mitigate against women using trained medical assistance at the time of giving birth.

A study on newborn health in Timor-Leste being conducted by Health Alliance International indicates that notions of “shame” are often the reason why women opt to stay at home to give birth. This matter requires more than the development of safe and accessible health services.

For Helena it was the expense associated with giving birth at hospital that led to her decision to have her five children at home. There are the costs of getting to and from hospital, additional food and water, appropriate clothing etc.

I gave birth to my three children at Dili National Hospital. Back in 2000 when I had my first son, Alexandre, the hospital’s maternity ward was staffed only by midwives. There was no obstetrician in the country. It was a case of BYO everything, from towels to the pedestal fan which would keep me cool whilst in labour. Nowadays, we have two excellent obstetricians assigned to the hospital, and whilst conditions are still a far cry from the average Australian hospital, the medical and other staff do a great job with their limited human and financial resources.

A couple of weeks ago, the director of the hospital, Senhor Caleres, came to see me at the Alola Foundation to ask my help. His voice was filled with sadness and a sense of helplessness as he told me that an increasingly large number of rural women are checking into the hospital to give birth with, not only not a single item of clothing for their newborns, but without cloth to wrap their babies, nor a chance of clothes for themselves. He explained that the hospital was running out of sheets for the beds since, desperate to help these new mums, the staff of the hospital were ripping up the hospital bed linen to make simple wraps for the new bubs. When he told me, too, that many new mothers, for lack of sanitary napkins and even underwear in some cases, often leave the hospital dripping blood, I made my mind up there and then that the Alola Foundation would start raising money to put together maternity packs to distribute through the Dili and Baucau hospitals.

This is life in East Timor - Timor-Leste as it is officially called - for countless women and children.

Being born healthy is one thing: staying healthy and getting an education as a child in Timor-Leste is another challenge.

At the end of March I participated in the 7th East Asia and Pacific Ministerial Consultation on Children in Siem Reap, Cambodia. I got to meet Carol Bellamy, the soon to retire head of UNICEF, an effective and tireless advocate for the rights of children, who made children’s right count. I wish her well – she has done an amazing job.

I found it gratifying to learn at this consultation that in some areas, for example under-five mortality, Timor-Leste has progressed further towards attainment of the Millenium Development Goals than a handful of other countries in the East Asia and Pacific region, including Cambodia itself. This does not however leave room for complacency.

It was also a moment of pride to realise that Timor-Leste was participating at this conference for the second time in its own right as an independent nation and had two young people in our delegation. They were confident, informed and informing. I thought that if this is how our young people are turning out against the odds; they are fourteen and fifteen years old; then we will do fine. Did you know that sixty per cent of our population is under eighteen years?

The principal concerns of Timorese children as identified by all the child representatives at this meeting included:

1) Reproductive health (and the need for it to be included in national curriculum)
2) HIV/AIDS and STDs
3) Violence against children

The Alola Foundation is addressing many of these issues: maternal and child health, access to education for girls, violence against women and children and the sexual exploitation of children. We do this through programmes like our National Breast Feeding Association, Scholarships Program, our Children’s Theatre initiative and our publication late last year of a report on trafficking in Timor-Leste.

On children, I am pleased to tell you that a Children’s Code is currently being drafted by the government in Timor Leste. It will serve as a framework and a mandate for the development and adoption of plans of action, programmes and activities to increase the rights of the child. It will also create a National Commission for the Rights of the Child as a coordinating and monitoring body.

So there is much to be hopeful about.

Tonight I shall also share with you some parts of my life in Timor-Leste and what it means to be both the wife of a national hero, mother to three children, and also the First Lady.

I used to have a tee-shirt that reads ‘Living with a Saint is More Gruelling than Being One”. I can attest to that being true! Although in my case the saint is also a national icon and the President.

But it’s a privilege, too. I get to use my voice to promote issues about which I am passionate. Am I able to use my voice through the Office of First Lady and the ALOLA Foundation to make a difference? I hope so. I said at my first Alola speech in 2000 in the NSW Parliament that I would use my voice to make heard the voices of the women and children of Timor-Leste, and that is why I am here tonight. To use my voice.

But I do it on a shoe-string. Do I have even adequate offices, adequate staff? No. Does my Office of First Lady have an adequate budget allocation? No. It may surprise many here tonight to know that there is a zero budget allocation for the office of the First Lady. Thanks to the generosity of Australia I have a Personal Assistant and thanks to a donation from Thailand I have a small office. We run everything out of the offices of the Alola Foundation. I do the duties of a First Lady on a back-packers budget.

One cause I feel very passionate about and am doing something about is breast-feeding. In Timor-Leste this passion to ensure that women exclusively breast-feed their babies for the first six months after birth can and does save lives. Malnutrition is the most significant cause of death globally, in children under five and we are part of this sad statistic.

Exclusive breast-feeding for the first six months of life has the potential to save close to 2 million lives around the world every year. And yet in the Asia Pacific region only about half of babies are exclusively breastfed for the first six months.

Complementary feeding is introduced too early and consequently large numbers of babies die of gastro-intestinal infections in the first year of life. These deaths are preventable through education on the importance of exclusive breast-feeding alone.

These are early days for us. The challenge ahead can seem overwhelming, but we have a country of strong women like Juliana and Helena.

Alongside the challenge there is overwhelming hope and with your continued support we will continue to grow as a nation. For that I want to thank you and ask you for your continued support for the work I and my dedicated team do on behalf of all women and children in Timor-Leste through the Alola Foundation.

I have created an audio-visual tribute to Helena, something personal I felt compelled to do when she received her award on International Women’s Day. In closing I’ll share it with you.

Kirsty Sword-Gusmao
First Lady of Timor-Leste
Adelaide, 21st April, 2005

Alola Foundation logo* The Alola Foundation

The Alola Foundation was originally established in 2001 to raise awareness about the problem of sexual and gender-based violence in East Timor and to benefit women, children and their communities in East Timor. Today the Foundation has grown to respond to a range of other needs of East Timorese women such as advocacy, economic empowerment, education and literacy, maternal and child health and humanitarian assistance. A wide range of initiatives including the Women’s Resource Centre, Friendship School Program, National Breast Feeding Association, the Friends of Alola and East Timor Exhibitions have been developed to continue to build links between East Timor and the rest of the world. The Foundation works in direct partnership with women’s non-profit organisations in East Timor.

Alola is the childhood nickname of a young East Timorese girl from Suai called Juliana dos Santos. During the violence of September 1999, Juliana was brutally kidnapped from the Suai Cathedral grounds by a militia leader and taken to Indonesian West Timor. Minutes before she watched as her 13 year old brother and 200 other people, including priests, were macheted and murdered by the “Laksaur” militia. She was 15 years old. This militia leader still holds her today.
After repeated rape, “Alola” has borne a child to the militia leader, Igidio Manek who claimed her as one of his “wives”.


Kirsty Sword Gusmao: First Lady of East Timor

Founder and Director: Alola Foundation, Author: A Woman of Independence: A story of love and the birth of a nation. The First Lady has a commitment to empowering women; she has influence; she has a voice and uses all three to give voice to tens of thousands of women in East Timor who do not have one. Her nation, the world’s newest, is one of the poorest with one of the highest infant and maternal mortality rates in the world. The under-five mortality rate is 12 per cent: Illiteracy rates are extremely high across the board. For women they are over 80 per cent. Poverty and malnutrition are widespread.

Ms Kirsty Sword moved to Jakarta in 1991. She was an English teacher and aid worker who had first started to work for East Timor on behalf of Amnesty International. Kirsty could speak both Portuguese and Indonesian. She became involved in working for the East Timorese resistance and adopted the code-name "Ruby Blade" (Blade for Sword).

One of Kirsty Sword's tasks was to get information to East Timorese prisoners being held in Indonesian prisons, including the jailed leader of the outlawed guerrilla movement, Xanana Gusmao.

Xanana Gusmao, was a soccer player and schoolmaster, and a member of the educated elite of East Timor before the Indonesian invasion in 1975. A reluctant resistance fighter, he nevertheless became commander of Falintil, and operated from the mountains, isolated from the world. He was captured by the Indonesian army in 1992, after which he directed the resistance from his Jakarta cell, aided by "Ruby Blade".

During the 1990s East Timor was often seen internationally as a lost cause. But somehow the issue was kept alive, largely by the activities of a few brave Timorese students, well-served by Kirsty.

Kirsty had to tread a delicate balance given her role as an Australian aid worker. It was a dangerous game for her, since at best it would have brought opprobrium on her, her organisation and Australia if her role had been exposed, and at worst it could have led to her being subjected to treatment her Timorese friends were used to at the hands of the security forces.

Kirsty has said "When I first travelled to East Timor in the 1990s, I fell in love with the physical beauty of the place, but also the spirit of the people. I felt that, if I had an opportunity to help, then it would be an honor to do so. I was aware that there was a risk to my safety, but I thought, given the flagrant abuse of human rights, and the attitude of governments including our own, that helping these people was worth the risk”.

Kirsty hasn’t really defined her new role yet, but doesn't feel daunted by it. In many ways, it is a continuation of what she was doing before, but with more influence. The plight of women raped in war is important to East Timorese women, and she wants to speak in sync with them. Kirsty is also committed to the creation of a national archive, to document the resistance years, and to women's literacy.

"My roots are now firmly anchored in East Timor. It is a country I love, and have fought passionately for, with people that I also love and fought for.”

Kirsty now plays a key role in thinking through the multitude of factors involved in creating a new nation.

While the views presented by speakers within The Bob Hawke Prime Ministerial Centre public program are their own and are not necessarily those of either the University of South Australia, or The Bob Hawke Prime Ministerial Centre, they are presented in the interest of open debate and discussion in the community and reflect our themes of: Strengthening our Democracy - Valuing our Diversity - Building our Future. The Hawke Centre reserves the right to change their program at any time without notice.