On Thursday, in between frantic worrying and planning about the International Women’s Day exhibition to be magicked up by Friday arvo (just wait, we’ll get to that), I managed to attend a session of the Women’s Peace Conference at the Ministeriu de Negocias Estrangeros (the Ministry of Negotiating with Strangers, or, more ordinarily, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs). I was keen for this particular session as it was to be a Bishop from Norway and the (female) Deputy Health Minister discussing the effect of culture on women, specifically from such practices as barlake (bride price) and reproductive health.
The Bish started off well by noting that as they were already very short on time, he would cut out his introduction and get straight to the point of his speech. I appreciated this very much. I got a bit cranky when he started talking about women having a ‘special understanding of emotionwork’ and being the gatekeepers of emotion, etc, though. I thought he was going off on a ‘women are delicate and are biologically designed to be special special nurturers’ tangent. However I forgave him when he went on to talk about women being overwhelmingly the victims of human rights violations, and how we have a duty to listen to women in this situation (theme of the conference was women’s experiences as peacemakers during and after conflict, remember). So that’s why he was going on about emotions, huh.
The second speaker, the Deputy Health Minister, concentrated on women’s reproductive health and their rights. Unfortunately I only picked up a general idea from the Powerpoint presentation (which was in English), but judging by the crowd’s reaction it was very controversial. (Lucky they didn’t get onto bride price, however disappointed I was that it wasn’t mentioned during the session in the end.)
The truth is, that for someone like me, who is used to discussing and studying these issues, I didn’t hear anything new. I could have written the Powerpoint presentation on health, birth control etc, although health is in no way a specialty of mine (which probably also says something about what a good little public servant I am, oh dear).
The event was also marred a little (for me – probably high entertainment for everyone else) when a psycho dude was the first to grab the microphone during ‘question and answer’ time, went off about how women are taking over, blah blah, and he was *almost* ejected from the room by security, but not quite. The event was a kind of women’s space; sure men were welcome but how much bad behavior should you put up with? None, I reckon.
However the conference was not for me, or for people like me. Although I was disappointed that the ratio of women to men was much higher than is usual for Dili (normally we get quite a few men, but not at this 400-strong event), it was wonderful to see that most of the women in the room were Timorese or from neighbouring Pacific countries. There was a noticeable amount of white malae (foreigner) women, but overwhelmingly the women were brown. This conference was for them. And talking about using contraception in Timor, which is 90% Catholic – talking about spacing your family and perhaps having 5 kids instead of 8 or 10 – talking more generally, in public, that women need to have a public voice – this was very controversial and generated a huge buzz of voices in the room.
In the moment, I was cranky and a little sick of events which I feel are meaningless prattle. I am becoming less and less of a fan of events where it’s ok to say yes, women’s voices need to be heard, events where we ‘celebrate’ women like International Women’s Day... but it’s not ok for government and Parliament to follow up this with actions or cold hard cash. I am impatient with words and want some action. I want trained midwives, I want homebirth not to be made illegal (this is an Australian rant), I want my State Secretariat to get the same amount of funding as others, I want people to take gender seriously when I show up to a meeting, I want men to take on caring work in the home, I want people to treat women as serious contenders for education and jobs. I have no doubt that many women before me have had this feeling.
However, upon reflection (and after having got some sleep), I can see that of course this event was more than just words for hundreds of people. I was told that the next day at the event, abortion was discussed. This is not something that people talk about openly here! They have criminalized it and put in place hospital policies that try to prevent abortions at all costs. Yet it came up. This is not just a discussion; this is women feeling safe enough to get together and talk about issues for all of society. They will go home energized and talk about what they heard and saw in Dili and let me tell you, there are some driven people in this country and they aren’t all foreigners. They have women’s NGOs galore here, it’s the only way to get their voices heard most of the time. The ideas shared here are going to result in new ways and programs. Someone might even go home and leave next time her husband beats her; or they might say ‘Hey, let’s wait a little longer before we have that 7th kid’.
I can only hope.