Women in East Timor and the Work of the Womens Woven Art Group

Added over 9 years ago

In an independent report produced by the United Nations, it has been estimated that some 100,000 Timorese died as a result of Indonesia's 25-year occupation of the country, which finally ended in 1999 after a referendum established that the majority of East Timorese wanted independence.

The halting of the violence and the establishment of a new national infrastructure was brought about by a United Nations mission consisting of an international peacekeeping force, and in fact the rebuilding of East Timor was  hailed as one of the UN's biggest success stories.  As a result, the UN Mission of Support in East Timor, UNMISET, was wound up in May 2005.

But poverty and unemployment has exacerbated ongoing unrest in the fledgling nation and security has been precarious.  In 2006 an outbreak of gang violence caused the UN Security Council to set up a new peacekeeping force, UNMIT.  In May 2006, civil war once again threatened the stability of the country. Since then, around 75,000 people are still living in refugee or IDP camps, mainly in Dili and at Metinaro, about 25 kms from Dili. 

Statistics produced by the United Nations indicate that 42% of people in East Timor currently live on less than $1 per day.  Because of the systematic genocide practiced during 25 years of Indonesian occupation and a subsequent high birth rate,  almost 50% of the population is now under the age of 15. 

Adult health is one of the major crises facing the nation at this time, with malaria & TB endemic across the country.  Maternal health and child mortality are also huge issues. The average woman in East Timor has 7.8 children. Rural women have little chance of giving birth in sanitary conditions or with medical assistance.  Many women die as a result of childbirth, and many babies do not survive their first year.  There is also sporadic violence in the camps.  The dislocation of living in camps has interrupted children's education.  In some cases, school buildings are being used as camps rather than as schools.

The series of events that have occurred since the declaration of independence has had a highly demoralizing effect on the East Timorese people.  In a recent study carried out by the University of New South Wales, the NSW Department of Health and Plan International, it was determined that young Timorese aged 15 - 25 feel they have been misled, exploited and abused by the very leaders they elected to guide them through this period of development as an independent nation.

It has been said "Trade beats aid when it comes to helping the poor" (Ross Gittins, Sydney Morning Herald, Sept 2007).  Traditional aid to countries such as East Timor can help, but it can also reach a point of diminishing return and eventually inhibit independent and sustainable economic growth.

Weaving tais cloth

Groups such as the Women's Woven Art Group (WWA) are attempting to address these issues by managing ignorance, despair, poverty and aid-dependence at a grass-roots level.  Created by Tricia Johns  approximately four years ago, the WWA works with 120 East Timorese women weavers, seamstresses and paper makers to produce attractive and saleable products based on the country's traditional hand-woven cloth, "tais".  While Tricia directs the group from within East Timor, Alix Mandelson in Sydney acts as one of the contact points within Australia to receive and distribute their products. 

There is a long tradition of hand weaving in Timor.  Work is carried out on the backstrap loom, producing cloth of great variety and beauty.  A number of regional variations can be discerned between the thirteen districts of East Timor.  From Los Palos at the eastern end of the island, there are bold colorful stripes.  From Bobonaro in the mountains near the West Timor border the cloth is woven mainly in black with elements of white, brown & indigo. From Suai on the southern coast comes tais with very intricate patterns in terra cotta coloring.  From Oecussi, the enclave located over the border in West Timor, there are several variations, including tais in red, indigo and grey featuring stylized crocodiles, the national symbol of East Timor.

Backstrap weaving

There is a limited international market for the woven pieces that are traditionally made for clothing and ceremonial purposes in East Timor.  But the WWA has recognized that there is potentially a much larger market for functional items such as scarves, belts, shawls, placemats, table napkins, table runners, handbags, document cases, phone cases and cushions covers.   Since it's inception, the WWA has worked to improve the design and quality of traditional workmanship and designs, in order to appeal to a wider international market. 

Under Tricia's direction, rural women bring or send their weaving in to the group to be distributed and sold.  In 2006 the WWA workshop was burnt out during an horrific period of civil violence, and women of the group were forced to retrieve their looms and sewing machines while under fire from opposing factions.  The workshop was quickly rebuilt with funds collected in Australia. IN 2006 the project  also established a shop in the Hotel Timor as a showcase and outlet for their products.

East Timorese women are the core of their communities. At present, due to epidemic unemployment, many women are earning the sole income for their families through work in the traditional handicraft sector.   The women in the WWA take great pride in developing their skills, creating new products and learning contemporary styles of weaving.  It means they can pay to send their children to school, buy medicine and put food on their tables.

The Mission Statement of the Women's Woven Art Group is to:

  • Create new jobs and generate income for East Timorese women, particularly illiterate women living in rural regions, through the sale of their traditional woven products
  • Establish a sustainable market for East Timorese handicraft products, both in Dili and overseas, by designing and producing quality goods of a useable, practical and aesthetic nature that will appeal to foreign buyers and overseas markets and compete with similar goods produced by women in countries such as Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and the Philippines.
  • Implement immediate practical marketing assistance for goods currently being produced by rural and illiterate women
  • Build long-term skills development in management, marketing and administration, work quality, consistency and meeting timelines. Particularly provide training and development of new products, techniques and marketing skills both local and international.
  • Educate rural East Timorese women and their families to gain better access to food, health and education resources in the immediate future.

WWA products are sent to distributors in Perth, Cairns and Katherine in Australia, sold through shops in Sydney (Kashgar, Grok, Ginger Flower, Enlightened Elephant) and through museums and galleries such as the Australian Museum, Goulburn Regional Museum and S.H. Erwin Gallery in the Rocks. Products are also sold directly at Timor funding events such as local film nights and book launches.  Community organizations (churches and schools) can be provided on request with products for sale at fundraising events.

If you want to help, remember that you as an individual CAN make a difference, and that each tais sale makes an important contribution to the economic development of the country and to the economic autonomy of women as well as contributing to the future security of the children of East Timor.  Whenever you need a gift, think about buying a Woven Art product. Help to alleviate the poverty and desperation of East Timorese women and their families, not with handouts, but with fair trade.

If you would like to get in touch with the WWA and it's principals, you can do so as follows:

Tricia Johns: etshp@yahoo.com Ph in Dili 670 7233318

Tricia is an Australian woman who went to East Timor in December 1999 to assess the situation and return to Australia to do some fund raising.  She has been there ever since, heading an NGO called the East Timor Self Help Project.  In the early days of 2000 Tricia received and distributed relief supplies collected by many Australian volunteer groups such as AETA.  She went on to organize a center to teach computer and English skills and sewing.  She worked closely with Carmelite and Salesian nuns to assist orphanages at Maubara and Venilale and helped a Timorese family set up the original Dili Guest House near the old market in 2000 when accommodation for volunteers was almost non-existent.

Alix Mandelson: amandelson@unwired.com.au Ph (02) 9331 1496

Alix originally came to Australia as a U.S. diplomat.  She is now permanently based in Sydney, Australia.  After her marriage she went into the import/export business, and started Serendipity Ice Cream in 1966.  She first became involved with East Timor in late 1999, helping pack and send donated aid goods.  She has visited East Timor seven times since 2000 and is a member of the Australia East Timor Association.


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