Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights, Population

RIGHTS-EAST TIMOR: Women Covertly Sterilised, Says Report

Sonny Inbaraj

DARWIN, Australia, Dec 9 1997 (IPS) - A number of East Timorese women have been covertly sterilised under Indonesia’s national family programme as part of efforts to “undermine the survival” of its people as a distinct group, a new study says.

Miranda Sissons, an Australian academic from the Centre for International and Area Studies at the U.S.-based Yale University, says the programme is creating a climate of fear in East Timor through compulsory injections of a controversial contraceptive, Depo-Provera, and sterilisation without the consent of women.

The Indonesian government dismissed as a “political hoax” the accusations against its family planning programme, called Keluarga Berencana Nasional (KB).

Occupied by Indonesian troops since 1975, East Timor is a sensitive point for the Jakarta government. Since that time, a guerrilla movement has been seeking self-rule for its homeland. Indonesia considers East Timor its 27th province, but the United Nations does not recognise its rule.

In her study, Sissons said a number of young East Timorese women she interviewed described consistent accounts of being injected a series of times with “unknown substances” in their final years of high school, between 1988 to 1989. These women later complained that they stopped menstruating, and some had prolonged problems with their periods.

Amenorrhoea, the cessation of menstruation, and disruption of menstrual cycles is known to affect one-third of women using progestin-only contraceptives, according to medical research. Depo- Provera is a progestin-only, long-term hormonal contraceptive.

Sissons’ report, ‘From One Day to Another: Violations of Women’s Reproductive and Sexual Rights in East Timor’, was published by the East Timor Human Rights Centre in Melbourne, Australia.

It says the East Timorese girls were made to believe by KB authorities that they were getting “vaccinations” when they were actually injected with Depo-Provera.

“Students were not informed of when these injections were going to take place, unlike with vaccinations at primary school, and the doors were locked to prevent escape,” wrote Sissons.

“The injections were only for girls; they allowed the boys to go home. This was in Year 12. The boys asked why they didn’t have to have them, but were given no reason. Everyone ran away if possible. No Indonesians came to school then, only Timorese. They made excuses why they were away. They used one needle for the whole class,” an interviewee who attended the Becora High School in East Timor’s capital, Dili, told Sissons.

But Indonesia’s minister for demography, Haryono Suyono, dismissed Sissons’ findings.

“This is an ancient rumour and an undermining political hoax,” he told the ‘Sydney Morning Herald’. “Only 20 per cent of East Timorese adults use contraceptives. We never try to force any contraceptive use against their will.”

Still, Sissons argues that there is a disturbingly high reliance on injectable contraceptives in East Timor, which at 62 percent of all continuing family planning users is double that of the next nearest province, Irian Jaya.

“This pattern suggests that KB users in East Timor have highly restricted choice of contraceptive methods. It also raises larger questions regarding the likelihood of covert contraceptive usage,” she explained.

The Yale academic accuses Indonesian government of using the KB programme as a “politically-motivated instrument to deliberately undermine the survival of the East Timorese as a national group”.

The covert sterilisations take two forms, Sissons says.

“The first consists of sterilisations conducted in tandem with Caesarean deliveries, in which women who had delivered their last child by Caesarean section would later find that they were inexplicably infertile,” her report said.

“The second alleges that women in hospital for other kinds of operations, such as appendectomies, would leave the hospital and later find themselves unable to conceive,” it added.

Sissons cites a case in 1989, when a Dili woman who had become infertile after an appendectomy, was told by her doctor that she had most likely been sterilised while under an anaesthetic.

James Dunn, the Australian consul in East Timor before Indonesian forces invaded the island in December 1975 and now a known writer on foreign affairs, has conducted a study on census statistics there since the invasion.

In 1994, he told the New Zealand Parliament: “Before 1975, East Timor had a population of 688,000, which was growing at just two percent per annum. Assuming that it did not grow any faster, the population today ought to be 980,000 or more — almost a million people.”

“If you look at the recent Indonesian census, the Timorese population is probably 650,000. That means it is actually less than it was 18 years ago. I don’t think there is any case in post- World War II history where such a decline of population has occurred in these circumstances,” he had said. “It’s worse than Cambodia and Ethiopia.”

Sissons says further analysis into East Timor’s demographics is difficult because of the lack of statistics.

“There are no accessible figures for fertility rates and population growth prior to 1980, nor are there official statistics on population loss. These kinds of information are fundamental in assessing the structures and desirability of family planning and population control programs,” she said.

“Indonesia’s rhetorical commitments to women’s human rights hold little value in the face of ongoing discrimination and human rights abuses suffered by the women of East Timor,” she added.

Added Sissons: “Instead, political and administrative factors have caused women to suffer a history of pain and humiliation at the hands of the Indonesian military and government.”

In a report last month to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, the East Timor Human Rights Centre said Indonesia had ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). This, the group said, creates responsibility on the government’s part to promote and protect the rights of East Timorese women.

In 1994, Indonesia played a major role in preparations for the 1995 Beijing conference on women, by hosting the Second Asian and Pacific ministerial conference on women.

There, the government signed the Jakarta Declaration, affirming that women’s rights are “inalienable, integral and indivisible parts of universal human rights”, and that CEDAW’s implementation was “crucial”, the centre said.

But “this commitment has not yet been borne out in practice and gestures towards international legitimacy will remain meaningless until the Indonesian government takes concrete steps toward ending violations of women’s rights in East Timor,” it concluded.

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  • Maria

    Depo-provera, a long-lasting injectable abortifacient that may increase the risk of osteoporosis and HIV transmission is Melinda Gates favourite modern contraception to throw at developing countries like Timor-Leste. Perhaps, a difference with the Indonesian times and now is that the promotion of Depo is seemingly justified in a period of peace?