Friday, January 24, 2014

East Timor's shocking saga of the principal, the minister and a schoolgirl

The controversial image on a Timorese Facebook group.
By Alex Tilman of Di'ak Ka Lae? Timor-Leste Reconsidered

OPINION: THIS STORY will make you cringe! Last month photos of a middle-aged man (one of which is reproduced here) embracing what looked like a uniformed schoolgirl inside a car, lip-locked, surfaced on a popular Timorese Facebook group.

It was soon revealed that the middle-aged man is the principal of a Catholic high school in Dili, the Colegio de São Miguel in Rai Kotu (Comoro), and the alleged uniformed schoolgirl, one of his students.

Needless to say, the photo instantly stirred a controversy surrounding what most people see as a highly inappropriate and despicable relationship between teacher and student even though no other detail of the relationship exists.

Various individuals, including members of Parliament, called for criminal investigation and the principal's sacking. Most were appalled by the principal's behaviour, yet there were a persistent few who attempted to trivialise the significance of this photo.

The case is currently being heard in a court (see article below). But the nature of the controversy took on a new twist after journalists confronted Timor-Leste's Vice-Minister of Education in charge of secondary education, Virgilio Smith.

When the daily Timor Post asked Smith for comments on this issue, his reply was rhetorical: “Are you a man or a woman? A man is a man. Only homosexuals don’t enjoy it. So, I don’t want to give any more comment” (see article and translation below, and Portuguese translation here).

No other conclusion can be drawn from the vice-minister's response except to contend that for this government official, who serves under the leadership of Timor-Leste's most charismatic leader, the great Xanana Gusmão, sexual exploitation of underage girls is not only tolerated but necessary for one to prove his manhood.

And if you're not into sex with underage girls then you must be a homosexual. And this guy is in charge of Timor-Leste's education policy! Many are outraged by his comments.

A post about the vice-minister's response on the same popular East Timorese Facebook group, where photos of the principal and his pupil first surfaced, drew over 150 comments, overwhelmingly disapproving of his remarks labelling them as insensitive, insulting and pathetic.

Calls for his sacking are also made. Obviously the vice-minister's comments deserve an appropriate response and should be condemned accordingly.

Timor-Leste's various advocacy groups, local and international, in particular Plan Timor-Leste, FOKUPERS, Rede Feto (Facebook), SEPI, and good willed and influential individuals, including the Prime Minister's wife Mme Kirsty Sword-Gusmão, who is also Timor-Leste's Goodwill Ambassador for Education and chair of UNESCO's National Education Commission for Timor-Leste, should issue immediate rebuke against the vice minister (remember, your silence will speak volumes).

Girls lead a precarious existence in Timor-Leste and face monumental obstacles to getting education thanks to prevailing local attitudes which typically see women and girls as objects and as inferior to boys.

The vice-minister's attitude is a prime example of this. The Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) has highlighted sexual violence and insecurity at school as one of the contributing factors to preventing girls from completing formal education (Timor-Leste is represented in this UN body by Milena Pires, who has a glowing reference on the Foreign Policy website).

The vast majority of underage girls who fall victim to sexual crimes are always forced to abandon school (Progressio, Plan International, Rede Feto). Yet studies show that educating girls tend to have a higher future return compared to boys.

By trivialising and ignoring the plight of girls like the young student from the Colegio de São Miguel, Timor-Leste risks becoming trapped in poverty and underdevelopment for many more generations to come.

Ban Ki Moon, the UN Secretary-General, was giving countries like Timor-Leste a useful hint when he said: “Educated mothers are more likely to have healthy children who survive. Educated families are less vulnerable to extreme poverty and hunger. And educated nations are more likely to enjoy vibrant economies, political stability and a respect for human rights.”

Why are we turning against our girls, and in effect our country? Perhaps the vice-minister should also be made aware that sexual exploitation of minors, girls or boys, is a crime that carries with it lengthy jail sentences in addition to lifelong stigma in many of countries, some of which have very close relations with us. It's disgraceful that Timor-Leste has a vice minister who seems to endorse sexual exploitation of underage girls and leave open invitations to child sexual predators everywhere.

Adults who are sexually attracted to minors are known as paedophiles. His very words as he responded to the Timor Post journalists potentially places him in that category of criminals. It's an embarrassment for Timor-Leste.

The Timor Post article

English Translation:

CSM Case

Virgílio: You must enjoy this to be a man

DILI – The Vice-Minister of education, Virgílio Smith, considers the case (of sexual abuse of a student) involving the founder of Colegio São Miguel (CSM), which has gone viral on Facebook, to be normal.

A photo, which has been posted widely on Facebook, purportedly shows the founder of CSM, with initials AC, in the act of committing sexual abuse against his own student, with initials SC.

When confronted by journalists on Thursday (9/1) to comment on this case, the vice minister of education told Timor Post: “Are you a man or a woman? A man is a man. Only homosexuals don’t enjoy it. So, I don’t want to give any more comment.”

This newspaper has also tried to get comments from the Minister of Education, Bendito dos Santos Freitas, however he refused to be drawn into it because he has yet to be informed about this issue. His office refused to comment.

Members of Parliament have already expressed their concern about the photo and have asked authorities to investigate.

In a declaration, AC (victim), Valerio Soares Lopez (father and victims’ family representative) and lawyer Pedro Aparicio have given a 10 day ultimatum, starting from the December 16, for the person who published this photo to show up and issue a public apology to the victim’s family.

The apology was to be published on social and local media. It is suspected that this photo has been obtained from the victim’s workplace.

The author is threatened with legal action if he or she doesn’t heed the ultimatum. It is suspected that this person worked at CSM for many years prior to receiving a recommendation for a placement as a public servant at the ministry of education.

The founder of CSM told journalists recently that he did not want to make any further comment on this case because it is currently being handled in the court. 

The Portuguese translation

Alex Tilman is a political activist and an alumni of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. He blogs regularly on the Timor-Leste reconstruction process. This article was first published on the author's blog and is republished with his permission.

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