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A difficult time for Timor's displaced people

Rainy season in Timor Leste is a difficult time for tens of thousands of people who have been displaced from their homes.  Many are now living in refugee camps in Dili and other parts of the country. These people are often referred to in NGO-speak as internally displaced people (IDPs).

Heavy downpours happen almost daily, bringing the sultry temperatures down to more comfortable levels, but they also create misery for people living under rickety tarpaulins on the bare ground of city parks, fields and car parks.

The Timorese government, as well as non-governmental organisations and United Nations agencies, are aware of the problems and have take some steps to prepare residents for another wet season. New tents are awaiting distribution but before they can be handed out, the government needs an accurate number of existing shelters.

Concern recently held meetings with the camp residents at Obrigado Barracks, a camp for displaced people outside the UN compound in Dili. The goal was to come up with the correct number of tents to be distributed. Camp residents, mostly men, insisted that 217 new tents should be handed out. The residents based the 217 figure on the number of families receiving food rations inside the camp. But the existing number of shelters is only 109, as more than one family often lives under the same tarp. The government was prepared to distribute 109 new tents almost immediately. The higher number might take months of difficult and perhaps ultimately unsuccessful negotiations. Tito de Aquino, Concern’s IDP point person in Timor was getting nowhere with the men, who dominated the camp discussions.

Recognising that promoting gender equality is a core value of Concern, de Aquino decided to hold a meeting just for women IDPs, who spend most of their days under the tarps tending children, cooking food and doing other domestic chores. When de Aquino explained that they could receive 109 new tents now, or wait for several months, throughout the rainy season, for the possibility of a higher number of tents, the women approached the issue pragmatically.

“They decided they wanted 109 tents now instead of waiting. They did it for their kids because they don’t want them to get wet,” said de Aquino.

With the women’s agreement, de Aquino went back to the men and told them that the women wanted to move on the issue and get the new tents up sooner rather than later. After a bit more discussion, the camp residents settled for 109 new tents.

“The women were much more reasonable and practical about the situation than the men”, according to de Aquino.