On the winding road that leads up through Ermera, Timor-Leste’s lush coffee-growing region, we have to pull over so I can throw up in the bushes. Motion sickness. While I’m crouched by the roadside, my colleague Herculano approaches.
‘Mana,’ he says, trying to distract me, ‘have you seen this plant?’
He points out something that looks like a weed to me. We both bend over. He strokes the top of one of the green, feathered leaves and it folds closed, as though shy of his touch.
‘What’s it called?’ I ask, reaching out to stroke the leaf myself.
He struggles to find the right words, arms crossed, gazing up at the banyan trees.
‘Ah!’ he says, as it strikes him. ‘Mary’s shame.’
I’ve come to Timor-Leste to take part in the evaluation of a women’s literacy and economic empowerment project. The project is funded by the Australian Government and implemented by a local NGO, Psychosocial Recovery and Development in East Timor (PRADET). PRADET began working in the immediate aftermath of the Indonesian withdrawal, focusing on mental health and trauma recovery. Today, it also addresses violence against women and children, and is the only Timorese NGO working with women and men in prison.
Herculano and I are with two of PRADET’s other program managers, Nina and Zinha, on our way to visit a literacy class at Gleno Prison. After returning to the car, we continue to ascend through the mountains, jolting up and down on the unsealed road damaged by heavy rain last month.
‘Like a discoteca,’ jokes Herculano.
This country is a study in perseverance. First colonised by the Portuguese in the 16th century for its sandalwood and, later, its coffee, it has suffered decades of violence and oppression. As many as 200,000 Timorese died in the conflict with Indonesia between 1974 and 1999 and, by the time Indonesian forces exited, 75 per cent of the population had been displaced and 70 per cent of the country’s infrastructure destroyed.
The women I will meet on this trip have survived all kinds of gender-based atrocities before, during and after the war.
Compounding this legacy of trauma are the high levels of violence against women and girls, especially those who live in poverty. The women I will meet on this evaluation trip have survived all kinds of gender-based atrocities before, during and after the war. For example, in a 2015 Asia Foundation study, 59 per cent of women aged 15–49 reported physical or sexual violence from an intimate partner, 46 per cent of those within the last 12 months.
In the car, Herculano passes me his phone, showing me some pictures he snapped of us earlier as we walked along the roadside, waiting for my nausea to pass.
‘So you can show everyone back home how much you suffer,’ he laughs.
There is still strong traditional justice in Timor-Leste, with village chiefs and sub-chiefs—mostly men—arbitrating matters, which can perpetuate gender discrimination. This means many cases of gender-based violence will never make it to the police or to the courts. Then there is the formal justice system, of which Gleno Prison is a part.
The prison is modest: no watchtowers, no men with guns patrolling the walls. A stray dog sleeps in the shade of a police van. Nina raps on the metal gate and we’re ushered inside.
According to Helder Cosme Marçal Belo, Director of Prison Services, Timor-Leste’s approach to justice is ‘human to human, and focused more on education, understanding and motivation to change the behaviour of prisoners.’ The Director of Gleno Prison, Mito Dos Santos, echoes this conviction and explains that Gleno’s rehabilitation programs have included sewing and horticulture, with some prisoners successful in finding work after release and others connected with employment centres.
However, the Timorese government—currently mired in political stand-offs which have stalled ministerial appointments and budgets since 2018—is not currently funding any of these activities itself. They are therefore woefully inconsistent. For example, women at Gleno were participating in a business and financial management course, but this fell apart when funding ran out. Organisations like PRADET, which rely on international grants, struggle to maintain the rehabilitation programs the government claims are core to their justice philosophy. Without the support of non-government organisations, prisoners’ psycho-social health would surely suffer.
While we sign the visitors’ sheet, we can hear music. There is a choir practising in the yard and the gospel harmonies stream through the high windows as though carried on beams of sunlight. I’ve never been in a prison before and don’t know what to expect. Beyond the gates, there are vegetable gardens, a room full of sewing machines, even a small chapel. Soccer nets frame opposite ends of a rectangle of grass. A lone chicken picks her way around the uprights.
The literacy class is held in a single, stuffy room, its concrete walls painted the sky blue of children’s picture books. There is a small whiteboard but no other teaching resources—just one book and one pen or pencil per student. Zinha introduces me to Ana*, a middle-aged woman dressed in a faded prison top. She shows us her exercise book, which is lined with tidy Tetun sentences. Zinha tells me Ana is writing the story of her life. I realise this isn’t just a notebook for class; it’s her diary.
Ana didn’t learn to read or write as a child. Instead, she earned money for her family by washing clothes. After she married, she sold vegetables at the local market to supplement her husband’s income as a teacher. Then a terrible accident occurred: her son was caught in a fire and suffered serious burns to his chest and arm. Terrified that her husband’s family would blame her, Ana turned herself in, preferring to face police rather than her in-laws. Searching for the right words for her translation, Nina makes a sawing motion with her right hand on her left forearm. The message is clear: Ana was afraid for her life.
Ana is now one of 22 women in Gleno Prison receiving a basic education, many for the first time. She reads the Bible aloud at Sunday mass. She tells me that she has twice won second place in reading competitions and received prizes from the church.
‘When I am released, I want to sell vegetables and do sewing work,’ says Ana. ‘I would also like to continue studying if possible.’
Later in the trip, we meet Maria*, who completed the literacy program while she was in prison. Maria’s husband had been abusive for years and she accidentally killed him in a fight. According to Nina and Zinha, it was self-defence—nevertheless, she was sentenced to twelve years. She was not allowed to see her three children, the youngest just five months old. Like Ana, Maria had never learned to read or write. With the classes in Gleno, she was finally able to write a letter to her children.
Because of her good behaviour, Maria’s sentence was reduced by half, but when she came out of prison, she couldn’t find a job. She turned to PRADET again, which helped her start a small kiosk selling rice, soap, bottled water and other everyday goods. Since opening her kiosk, Maria has doubled her income and now earns around A$30 per day. However, she still hasn’t been able to reconnect with her children—they live with her husband’s family.
‘I miss my children but I cannot see them,’ she says. ‘As a mother I will make every effort to help my children go to school and be successful in the future. I have a plan to collect money little by little so I can build a simple home for my children and see laughter and joy.’
In Gleno, the women are eager to share their stories, but we don’t have time to hear them all. As we say our goodbyes, a woman comes up to Zinha and presses some letters into her hands, asking if she can deliver them to her family in Maliana. Many of the women’s families have no phones and no money for transport, so learning to write has been the only way to maintain contact. Literacy is the thread that connects them to life outside the prison gates.
Zinha and Nina are extraordinary people. They offer counselling for the women in Gleno. They buy soap, shampoo, exercise books and other necessities out of their own paycheques. But they are tough, too. They tell the women not to feel sorry for themselves and to be proactive in their rehabilitation. Throughout the evaluation, I hear women describe Zinha and Nina as family. This is echoed by the Director of Prison Services.
Many of the women’s stories aren’t linear… but their victories are no less important for being small, or slow, or out of sequence.
‘The prisoners say to me that their presence is like gold,’ Marçal Belo says. ‘To them, they are like mothers. Like sisters.’
As we drive away, I flick through photos of Ana proudly holding up her diary. More than simply a link to work or further study, literacy has given her the power to assert her point of view and her own self-worth, perhaps for the first time.
In the following days, we visit a dozen more women in Gleno, Alieu and Dili who generously share their stories. Despite histories of abuse that include sex trafficking, domestic violence and rape, many of the women are making incredible progress. With help from PRADET, they are starting micro-enterprises—running kiosks, selling second-hand clothes, growing vegetables, raising pigs. We hear how their income is covering the cost of food and clothing, paying for school fees, being set aside to send daughters and sons to university. The progress, sometimes within just a few months, is astonishing. But although it’s tempting to find a narrative arc, one that takes a woman out of poverty and abuse and into safer territory, many of the women’s stories aren’t linear.
The journeys twist and turn and sometimes go backward. For example, there is Alia*, who opened a small kiosk in Dili. But she was so frightened that her abusive husband would come and take all her income that she put all her earnings into saving accounts for her children and neglected to set any aside to keep her business going. When the kiosk ran out of stock, she had no way to buy more.
There is Carmen*, a high school student so softly-spoken she has to repeat herself when we ask what she’d like to be when she grows up. A doctor, she says. Her mother tells us that, although the police know the identities of her assailants, only one has been arrested.
This is the harsh truth of it: that a woman, a woman better off than she was in the past, a woman who is no longer being beaten by her husband or sold across the Indonesian border into sex slavery, might still earn just $3 a day. Yet the women’s victories are no less important for being small, or slow, or out of sequence.
And although this trip has shown me what Australian aid has the power to do, Australia’s influence in Timor sits uneasily with me. How can we weigh our role in empowering Timorese women and contributing to rehabilitative justice against our country’s exploitation of Timor’s natural resources and history of espionage (again in the headlines as the secret trial of Bernard Collaery approaches)? Especially when that espionage was conducted under the cloak of benevolence, with listening devices placed while the offices were ostensibly being renovated as part of an Australian aid program. The dissonance is as nauseating as a trip on Timor-Leste’s winding mountain roads.
How can we weigh our role in contributing to rehabilitative justice against Australia’s exploitation of Timor’s natural resources and history of espionage?
The women themselves don’t speak of pain or hardship or betrayal. When asked about their lives before, they shrug, or they smile, and say: ‘It was difficult before; now, it is better.’
I can’t tell if they’re speaking the truth, or if they’re saying what they think we want to hear. In either case, there is one constant: the difficulty, no matter its size and shape, persists. Studying, working, starting a business, even survival itself—for many women and girls, these are remarkable acts. Not just of resilience, but of active, determined resistance.
On our way back to Dili, we drop by the Church of Our Lady of Grace in Gleno. The church itself is closed, but its elevated position affords beautiful views of rice paddies and mountains. Cattle munch grass in the fields. A boy makes his way home from school, ducking the fences. Smoke rises from a crooked little house down the hill.
There it is again. This time, Zinha is the one to point it out.
‘It’s a stupid name,’ she says. But a significant one, especially here below the grand Catholic church, where the name ‘Mary’ evokes so much: sexual immorality, persecution, stigma. The intents and desires enacted upon women by men and gods, by systems and governments. For Maria, for Carmen, for women all around the world—still we know the shame of Mary.
It’s late in the afternoon as we drive back to Dili. Going downhill is better for my car sickness than going up. The sky has softened with purple cloud, and as we come down from the mountain it begins to rain—hesitantly at first, and then in darts that leave their mark on the windshield. We are coming to the end of the wet season. Soon it will grow cooler and the days will get shorter. I wonder if the women in Gleno Prison have enough light to read by in the evening. I picture Ana sitting down with her bible, or opening up her diary, pen in hand, ready to continue her story, even though no one may ever read it. Who knows what’s on the other side of the next sentence?
Darkness curls around her, but it cannot touch her as she begins to write.
* Names have been changed