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Lifting lives in Timor-Leste

The Star/ANN - February 25, 2013

Lim Chia Ying, Dili – The breast cancer diagnosis that came just before Christmas was the latest in Kirsty Sword Gusmao's series of continuous battles.

The former First Lady of the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste (East Timor) faced her illness squarely; she disclosed her health status through media statements, confirming reports she is undergoing treatment in her hometown Melbourne, Australia. The cancer is in its early stage, and Kirsty sounded optimistic about her recovery.

Kirsty also assured everyone she felt strong and thanked everyone who has shown her love and support.

Her cancer diagnosis has not dampened her spirit. After all, she has been through some really trying times and this diagnosis only serves to force her to take stock of things.

"It (the diagnosis) probably means that I need to slow down and give myself some space and time to get better," reflects Kirsty, 46, in a recent e-mail interview. "I need to be well to see my family and my little nation grow strong and confident."

The nation is the young Timor-Leste, which is barely 11 years old. Kirsty rose to prominence when her husband Xanana Gusmao became Timor-Leste's first President in 2002.

In May the same year, Timor-Leste proclaimed its independence officially, having broken free from over two decades of Indonesian occupation in 1999.

(The last of Indonesia's militia was forced to pull out of Timor-Leste in Oct 1999, following an intervention from the United Nations.)

For about two-and-half years, the United Nations governed Timor-Leste until the 2002 presidential elections, when former militant Xanana was sworn in as President.

Kirsty is respected for more than just her position as a former First Lady. Her extensive work on the ground has endeared her to the people. She founded non-profit and non-governmental organisation Alola Foundation in 2001, which has helped improve livelihoods and access to education and employment for thousands of Timorese girls and women.

It is all part of her efforts to rebuild Timor-Leste, which grapples with poverty and an economy stunted by its tumultuous past.

Deep-rooted traditional practices and cultural/economic barriers have also stood in the way of the attainment of key development goals.

Kirsty became the one that schools go to for requests of extra classrooms, the one to whom rural women appeal for loans to get small businesses off the ground.

Then there are the young girls who turn to her for scholarships in hopes of receiving an education, and whom neighbours approach to seek solace from abusive husbands.

"Alola's motto 'strong women, strong nation' is a testament of my conviction that women and girls have the power to transform their lives as well as the course of history and national development. It underpins everything my organisation does," she says.

In 2007, she was appointed the Goodwill Ambassador for education in Timor-Leste by President Dr Jose Ramos Horta, who succeeded Xanana after the latter stepped down at the end of his term.

Xanana is now Prime Minister (he has been reappointed for a second term following last year's presidential elections), and Kirsty continues to work with the Education Ministry to address pressing needs in the education sector.

A consciousness awakens

Kirsty was born and raised in Melbourne, and did Indonesian and Italian studies in the 1980s at the Melbourne University. During her student days, she volunteered for several years as a writer and administrative assistant for a progressive magazine called Inside Indonesia that documents political and social developments in Indonesia.

"The then editor, Pat Walsh, drew me into a very interesting and dynamic circle of academics and human rights activists who made me aware of the struggle for self-determination in Indonesia's "renegade" provinces of Timor-Leste, West Papua and Aceh," says Kirsty.

"Throughout those years, I came to know dozens of East Timorese dissidents who had been forced to flee their homeland and seek refuge in Australia.

"They shared their stories of courage and resistance to the cruel oppression, and I was filled with admiration for their bravery and persistent struggle."

Those stories touched Kirsty and in 1992, she packed up her bags and headed to Jakarta to get to know the Indonesian people and culture better, and to contribute more actively to the East Timorese independence cause.

As she got more involved in championing the East Timorese cause, she got to know Xanana who was serving a 20-year prison term for his role as the independence leader.

Despite being on different sides of the prison walls, Kirsty and Xanana were able to exchange letters and communicate, and love soon blossomed.

"Gradually, we were in contact via more sophisticated and daring means such as audio tape, video tapes and mobile phones," she recalls.

They got married in 2000 when Xanana was released from jail. When she moved to Timor-Leste, she was well aware that the climate would be one of restrictions on freedom of speech, oppression and high levels of surveillance of foreign visitors' activities by the police and military.

"I was in fact followed by spies sent by military intelligence the minute I arrived in Dili (capital of Timor-Leste) despite having declared myself a 'mere tourist' who had no intention beyond taking in the sights and enjoying East Timorese hospitality," she recollects.

In the post-independence days, Kristy's work has changed from that of resistance activism to her humanitarian mission at the Alola Foundation. The aim now is for Kristy to help the East Timorese people acquire new skills sets and reshape their priorities.

"For me, the priority was to respond to the needs of my adoptive homeland's most vulnerable citizens, its women and children.

"It became very clear to me early on that East Timorese women were the backbone of their families and societies, yet are undervalued and underutilised resources in an extremely patriarchal society,"says Kirsty, explaining that Alola was established to address needs of women and children in areas of maternal and child health, economic empowerment, education and advocacy.

At East Timor's independence in 2002, she estimates that some 55% of the women and 46% of men in the country were illiterate. The literacy rate has improved over the years thanks to efforts by the Education Ministry, in collaboration with Unicef, the Government of Cuba and other bilateral donors, in expanding the reach and quality of educational services.

Kirsty admits that despite the improvements, there's still a long way to go in ensuring that every East Timorese child receives quality education based on modern, relevant curricula, which is delivered by trained teachers in a language understood by students.

Being the former First Lady actually hasn't made the work any easier. "I enjoyed very little institutional support nor did I have any political power to wield. If anything, I had to seek funding from private sources to support my pursuits across all areas, and even to pay the salary of a personal assistant.

"Alola is the vehicle through which I was able to realise some of my goals related to women's empowerment and improve the access of girls to educational opportunities."

She says Alola and other women's organisations operating inside Timor-Leste have urged for greater participation of women at the national and local political levels, and have been successful in ensuring that women are adequately represented within the national parliament and on village councils.

"We have also contributed to the campaign calling for a national domestic violence law to be implemented, thus making domestic violence a crime. This was quite a significant achievement in a country where family violence is rife and a huge social problem," she says.

In a speech she delivered last July at a UN Women Luncheon in Sydney, Australia, Kirsty shares the story of Brigida, a primary school teacher who helped care for her children. The girl, in tears, said her father had beaten her mother severely.

"Domestic violence has in fact been happening in the household for over two decades. I told (the teacher) to bring her mother, and after that offered the mother and her children refuge in my home and a medical check-up at the hospital the next day.

"The mother decided to press charges against her husband for his unrepentant abusive behaviour, which took a great deal of resolve on her part as she had no support from her own family, the village authorities or the police.

"She managed to take the case to court with the help of women's NGO Fokupers (which operates Dili's only women shelter for victims of domestic violence). However, the judge ruled that the husband did not commit an offence after a key witness lied in court and her medical reports went missing.

"This story shows the fragility of our state institutions and underscores the need for its strengthening in the interests of defending the fundamental rights of our citizens. It also demonstrates how the interests of the most vulnerable, particularly women, are often poorly served by both traditional justice and the formal legal system," says Kirsty. On a more hopeful note, Brigida is now studying in a prestigious university in Brazil.

She admits that there are still many challenges to confront. At the same time, taking stock of such small steps in the right direction is important.

Kirsty highlights how Alola Foundation has also succeeded in reducing infant mortality and boosting awareness on the importance of simple practices such as exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of an infant's life by working at the village level to make mothers, women and young girls the agents of change.

"Back in 2005, rates of exclusive breastfeeding stood at approximately 30%, today closer to 52% of mums feed their babies nothing but breast milk for the first six months of life. It might be a slow process as it involves addressing age-old customary practices and beliefs, but we are extremely satisfied with the progress recorded to date," she says.

Stumbling blocks to girls attending schools include cultural and economic obstacles, distance, inadequate or non-existent sanitary facilities, classrooms with roofs that leak so badly during the rainy season as well as shortage of school furniture.

"Together with my friends Kris Webb and Jenny Coles, we are doing a rural school rebuilding project financed by Kris's Brisbane-based organisation, Spend It Well. This situation is slowly improving with help of donor partners and Timor-Leste government providing schools with subsidies."

She says it is difficult to quantify the changes and benefits that have resulted from Alola's work, though she is confident that they have opened educational doors and improved the health and well-being of thousands of East Timorese women since its inception.