I did not know it on arrival, but I learned that the tree outside the house I am staying in has a placenta hanging in it. (In Timor, in different regions people save placentas in different ways. They are not something to be simply discarded or ignored.)
The placenta came with a baby delivered in Dili Hospital after nearly a 24 hour labor. During this time those accompanying the young mother had to buy sarongs for her to lie on during childbirth, as apparently the room where women give birth is BYO linens.
On Tuesday, as I was dealing with the consequence of an excessive amount of water and coffee I drank that morning in a subdistrict not far from Dili, I looked over at the fetid water in the tiled mandi tank next to me, which I knew for a fact to be little over a year old.
The toilet itself was stained all kinds of unappealing colors on every square inch, inside, on the seat, on the cover leaning against the back. It smelled. Quite nasty. There was either no running water or no will to run the water. A used single-use packet of shampoo lay in the white sink, which was clean because it obviously served no purpose.
This episode reminded me of an indicator I have been developing about organizations and their seriousness about addressing gender imbalances – the cleanliness of the toilet. Odds are that as a woman, one out of five or six times you leave the home either to attend an event or to go to work you not only need a private place, you really need water. If that private place smells so bad, and has such nasty water – or none at all – it is a serious disincentive. In some respects, you would be better off running into the forest to deal with things.
I am sure there are a number of logical reasons the described toilet was in this shape. And in the end, I am sure the toilet measured up pretty well as a subdistrict level toilet.
But in the capital city Dili, I have had to use a number of absolutely shocking NGO toilets. Lack of soap, total filth, doors that do not close properly or have holes in them, not enough water, masses of mold and algae on the flooe, or water flooding everywhere. In some of the country’s most lauded and important civil society institutions. I will name no names, but I remember feeling that these NGOs were showing a blatant disrespect for the female employees. I have never actually brought this up formally with the organizations I work with, and to be honest I have never discussed this in depth with female NGO employees. Perhaps the possibility of a clean toilet is something that nobody actually has ever considered, even women themselves. Which in some sense is exactly my point.
The influence of the UN and NGOs has obviously increased the lipservice paid to women and gender issues here. As it is not my area of expertise, I have no idea how much progress has been made in protecting maternal and child health over the past couple of years. I would imagine a number of heroic efforts have been made, but many of the fundamentals remain unchanged. The figures remain very troubling.
I have seen that heavy, intensive doses of gender training and “sensibilization” tend to create a kind of cognitive dissonance, where men (and women) continue to relate in ingrained ways, but where their discourse in public shifts. An example would be an NGO worker who adeptly works to integrate women’s views into his work, includes and respects women at the workplace, but then the moment he goes on a work trip to another city goes wild seeking out child prostitutes.
Does all of this leave us rather up a tree? Or better, “up shit creek”? I would say no. Processes of change are not like rivers, but instead like ocean currents, multilayered, flowing in different directions.