I feel very sad when reflecting on the past when women fought for independence. They were involved on the front lines with weapons and with their expertise in carrying food and medicine. They provided ideas during the negotiation and reconciliation process. They were part of civilian teams at base camps and in the clandestine front.
During and after the armed conflict (1974 - 1999), many women and girls experienced their own forms of suffering and violence, including starvation, imprisonment, rape, and sexual slavery. Yet, their roles in conflicts are not highlighted, and their long involvement in mediation and peace processes is barely discussed in the literature.
Women have the capacity to feel the needs of those in the communities who trust women to lead the mediation and dialogue processes. I want to underline that East Timorese women participated fully in both the peace process and the negotiations. Their expertise in the conflict resolution process is durable and recognized and trusted by the conflicting parties. Women have played important roles during the invasion and post-independence.
In the past, the strong patriarchal system did not allow women to take the lead in peace processes. It made it difficult for women to be recognized as active participants in reconstruction and development and how much they contributed to the nation-building process from 1975-2020.
Today, as we look back, we can now see the contribution of women in maintaining peace. This is especially the case where women took the role of mediators in community conflict, as mediators and negotiators for internally displaced persons (IDPs) from 2008 to 2010 and boundary disputes between Indonesia and Timor-Leste, as well as other social conflicts at the community level.
I remember the time when my two friends and I (men and women) were involved in the reintegration process following the 2006 crisis when thousands were displaced. The reintegration processes, including the conflict prevention and resolution measures, began in 2008 and went until 2010. This initiative facilitated the reintegration of IDPs back into their communities through “Programa Hamutuk Hari’i Futuru/Together Building the Future.” During this process, the dialogue team’s role was to help prevent conflict and facilitate resolution through dialogue, mediation, and traditional dialogue.
At that time, I was a mediator from the Ministry of Social Solidarity. During the reintegration process, my task was to facilitate the negotiation and mediation between different parties in land and property disputes, which included leaders of martial arts groups and others involved in armed conflict, and to organize community dialogue among parties. Armed with courage, I was able to manage and control the circumstances while there were screaming youth on the streets with wood, stones, knives, machetes, and local wine in their hands when the IDPs were reallocated to their former places.
We helped to organize a dialogue, inviting the respective leaders of opposing martial arts groups, government representatives, and community leaders to reach an agreement to end the present violence and conflict and prevent future ones. These negotiations were followed by the traditional ritual of sacrificing buffalo to the ancestors of those involved in the fighting, asking them to call on their children to stop fighting with one another.
We struggled to get the people’s trust, especially when women-led the mediation processes. One old man told me, “you are just girls and you know nothing of conflict. I have convinced many people, influenced groups and famous leaders, so you will not get what you want from me to get my acceptance to receive them back to this community. This is a xenophobic issue; you can just go back and get rest. Don’t force yourself to solve this.” Because of this, I made myself stronger than before so I could convince IDPs and receiving communities to be involved in mediation. I was then able to move them into the final stage of traditional dialogue and agreement, involving the relevant stakeholders in the dialogue processes. And, now people trust in women mediators to lead the mediation processes as they believe that the agreement is durable and will last. Even today, I continue this work for community development in Timor-Leste with various UN agencies, international agencies, and government counterparts.
Today, I am more comfortable getting the trust as an esteemed mediator for Southeast Asian Women Peace Negotiators and Mediators (SEAWPNM). With my five other colleagues—talented and experienced women mediators and negotiators from Indonesia, the Philippines, Cambodia, Malaysia, and Thailand—we have committed ourselves to work with other women’s networks involved in mediation work in conflict areas regionally and globally. The SEAWPNM carries out a broad range of activities that include: deployment of missions in conflict areas; participating in ongoing peace processes or initiatives aimed at preventing or resolving the escalation of violence in Southeast Asia or other regions; collaborating with other regional networks; joining global women mediator networks; and collaborating with regional and international governmental and non-governmental organizations, countries and other partners.
SEAWPNM has engaged deeply in some of the conflicts in Africa, providing support to local governments. We have partnered with the Mediterranean Women Mediator Network to discuss conflict and support the role of women mediators in peace processes. I am very proud to be a woman mediator from Timor-Leste and involved in the SEAWPNM. Now, I can feel the need of people to live in peace, wanting to be secure and seeking respect as human beings, especially women and girls who have suffered from war and violence. I hope that the role of women mediators can bring changes to the world through dialogue, reconciliation, and peace processes as I believe that women-led peace processes and agreements are durable and long-lasting.
Leonésia Tecla da Silva is currently working with UN Women as National Programme Analyst and Manager for Women, Peace, and Security in Timor-Leste. She is a member of the Southeast Asian Network of Women Peace Negotiators and Mediators, initiated by the government of Indonesia in 2019.