Thursday, 12 June 2008 By Rosita Sonet and Ofelia Vilanova CJITL reporters - KITAU, Covalima--When Maria Ximenes talks about her work as a prostitute, she tries to keep her face expressionless. But she is only 16 years old, and new to the job. She twists her body on the wooden bench in her house, turning her face away.
“It’s my body, I can use it any way I want,” she says, her laugh tinged with defiance.“It is our culture. Our grandmothers did this work.”
Her friend Clara da Cruz, 24, has been working as a prostitute for several years, and her gaze is steady. Her expression is serious, and a little sad. “We would do other work if there was any,” she says. “But there isn’t.”
The two work as prostitutes in tiny Kitau, a village in Covalima, a 20-minute ride from the district capital, Suai.
The village is little more than a cluster of split bamboo houses, lining a one-lane road through the jungle. Village chief Baltazar Bareto says people in Kitau don’t mind what the women do for a living.
“They have to get money to keep their children alive, which is why we don’t interrupt their lives.” He says there are no government programs to support the women’s families, so they don’t have much choice.
Some say prostitution is more acceptable in the southwestern district of Covalima than in other areas of Timor-Leste. They say women from the city of Suai--and particularly the village of Fatumean, which is near the border with Indonesia—have done this work for generations. Both Ximenes and da Cruz come from Fatumean. They say they’re just doing this for a while, and they hope to get married again some day. They say they are following tradition.
But others say it’s less a matter of tradition than economics and sometimes coercion, noting that Covalima—which borders the Indonesian province of West Timor—has a long history of invasion.
“When Indonesians invaded a village, families would offer their daughters to the soldiers as a way of protecting the family,” says Ergilio Ferreira Vicente, who as head of the Suai Youth Center has organized various initiatives to discourage prostitution.
The invasions of 1975 and 1999 left a sorry legacy, he says. “Some became sex workers because of rape,” while others are victims of incest, divorce or marital problems.
He knows of one girl who is caring for three younger siblings. “Most of these girls have no education. They’re illiterate,” he says. “If you say it’s just economic, well, it’s more complicated than that. (For some), they like their jobs. Their brothers and sisters can go study and they can support their parents.”
Ximenes and da Cruz say their customers come from all walks of life, from politicians and government officials to farmers. Both say they turned to prostitution after marital problems: da Cruz’s husband left her for another woman; Ximenes says her husband’s family rejected her a month after their marriage.
Da Cruz is the sole support for her two daughters. “My family knows about what I do,” she says. “Some of my brothers are angry, they want me to stop, but why should I?”
They say their customers usually wear condoms and they don’t worry much about sexually transmitted disease (STD), human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) or acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS).
That’s a problem, says the Youth Center’s Viera.
“People don’t have the basic information they need about HIV/AIDS and STDs,” he says. “We need to give people more information so they don’t feel scared, or too embarrassed to get tested.”
Alberto Cole, the director of the District Hospital in Suai, says about 50 people have been tested for HIV/AIDS since the hospital began testing in 2006, and none were positive. But he worries about the future.
“We in Timor have a problem, because a lot of people are too embarrassed to get tested,” he says. Hospital workers go to “high-risk areas”, such as youth hangouts, and try to disseminate information about HIV/AIDS.
High rates of STDs indicate not everybody is using condoms. Says Cole, “Every day we see about five or six cases of STDs, normally gonorrhea.”
Cole says the Ministry of Health does not have a program to combat prostitution. “That’s a social problem,” he says. “We in the health ministry just take care of our own responsibilities, such as sickness and the like.”
Several other groups have tackled the problem.Iin 2004, the Youth Center began a project that surveyed sex workers and counseled them. In interviews with 49 sex workers , they found that the industry is not well organized.
“We worked with them for only a year, because they do not stay in one location and it is difficult to find them” when they travel to Dili or other regions for festivals, he says.
Some neighborhoods don’t want brothels, he says. “Many times there is fighting in the area,” for example when wives discover their husbands visiting the prostitutes. If the customers come on motorbikes or cars, “the people may throw rocks or set them on fire.”
Other neighborhoods welcome the business. Viera says the women rent rooms or houses from neighborhood families and their customers pay the children to watch over their cars or motorbikes. Sometimes the women provide free sex to their landlords.
“It’s like a chain. The people in that area need the income, so, if you say it’s for economic reasons, it gets more complicated,” he says.
For Sister Jessy Joseph, it’s not complicated at all. While prostitution is not illegal in Timor-Leste, she says many of the girls are younger than 18, “and it’s a crime using minors as prostitutes.”
Since 2005, Sister Jessy has worked with prostitutes and victims of sexual abuse in Salele, a town near Suai and Kitau. At first, she thought the sex trade was driven by economics and ignorance.
But now she thinks it’s a question of moral values. “The biggest problem is the family life is disturbed. The girls in the village see the other girls doing it, so it influences them,” she says. Some girls “think it’s the only way to earn a living.”
Sister Jessy runs a safe house in Salele, a place where women can stay for up to a year to recover from abuse and learn skills to support themselves. The women sell what they make; in the past five months, they have made about $200.
In two years, Sister Jessy says, only three prostitutes have taken part in the program. Most prefer to stay in Kitau, where they can earn much more money.
“Some days they only make 25 cents, other days they make $60,” she says. “It depends on the age and the beauty of the girl. If she is young and pretty she earns more.”
She often visits the women working in Kitau, but says they have many reasons why they don’t want to leave the life. They tell her they must look after their children, or support their parents. But she doesn’t buy it.
“The real reason is because they think it’s the easiest way to make money without any effort,” she says.
Most of the nine women now living in the safe house are victims of incest.
Belinha was only 12 when she was attacked. “I was raped by my grandfather in the bushes near our garden. He used a towel to gag my mouth” and told her not to tell her family. She became pregnant and is now, at 13, the mother of a son.
Eurosia, 20, was raped by an uncle. “He threatened to kill me if I told anyone,” she says. Although she reported it to police, the uncle escaped to Dili. Her family sent her to the refuge.
“We are taught many things here, such as sewing and cooking,” she says. “I am now back to a normal life and I want to live better.”
Given the way the customers regard the women, that is not surprising.
“Girls who are not prostitutes, you can’t say anything bad about them,” says Antonio da Costa, 24. “But whores, you don’t need to respect, because their parents don’t care enough about them to watch out for them.”
Da Costa, a motorbike taxi driver, says he goes two to three times a year with friends. He pays about $2 to a prostitute in Salele; he usually visits the same woman, who is about 20. He says they just have sex and he leaves; he doesn’t talk or joke around with her.
“During Indonesian times, prostitution really took off around here,” he says. “The Indonesians came with money and they used the women with that money.”
Now, he says, “a lot of people go to the whores. Police go there, and lots of civilians. The whores see policemen or civil servants and they like them more because they’ve got lots of money.”
He says he and his friends don’t abuse the prostitutes, but they would never marry one.
(Additional reporting by Bofe, Jesse Wright, and Stephanie March)
See further The Social Problem of Prostitution in East Timor and Prostitution in Dili, East Timor