Policy Brief 5: Culture And Its Impact On Social & Community Life

October 6, 2011

Policy Brief 5 Culture And Its Impact On Social & Community Life

Executive Summary

Culture and customs are at the center of the social order in Timorese communities. Even with a modest population of one million people, a variety of ethno-linguistic groups co-exist within the nation, each speaking a unique local language and adhering to customs originating from animistic belief systems that have been passed down since ancient times. Throughout the history of foreign occupation and into present times, culture has offered an abiding source of identity and stability for the Timorese people, even though a strong sense of ai???state-basedai??i?? national identity is still evolving in this young nation.

Despite the variety of traditions and practices in existence, the system of fetosaaumane is common to all ethno-linguistic groups. Upon marriage, the husbandai’s family (fetosaa) and the wifeai’s family (umane) are bound together in a life-long partnership that requires them to provide mutual support for all important events and ceremonies such as births, marriages and funerals. Requirements for ceremonial transactions on such occasions are prescribed by the uma lisan (houses of tradition) of the husband and wife.

While the fetosaa-umane system is the backbone of Timorese society and is intended to strengthen unity between families, thus promoting harmony and social cohesion, this research was conducted in order to explore concerns raised through monitoring data gathered through the Early Warning and Early Response (EWER) program which indicated that certain cultural practices may be indirectly contributing to inter-familial and communal conflict in Timor-Leste.

Through the course of this research, accounts from community members and leaders confirmed that certain customs can heighten tensions within the family and become contributing factors to conflict due to excessive financial pressures that must be borne by family members. The economic and social impact of ceremonial costs is often far-reaching, perpetuating problems such as gender inequality, domestic violence, food insecurity, chronic economic deprivation and the limiting of educational opportunities for the future generation.

Notwithstanding such challenges, this report presents the dominant finding that culture and traditional practices continue to represent the primary means of conflict resolution and peace building in most Timorese communities. Traditional justice is administered through the interpretation and application of cultural norms and values upheld in each ethno-linguistic group.

Public peace agreements reached through ceremonies such as Nahe biti boai??i??ot (negotiations that take place on a woven mat), Juramentu (the drinking of a mixture of blood from an animal sacrifice and traditional palm wine to seal an agreement) and Tara bandu (the hanging of culturally significant items from a wooden shaft to place a ban on certain agricultural or social activities within a given area), continue to serve as effective means of dispute resolution.

These traditional social mechanisms will necessarily play a significant and far-reaching role in Timorese communities for years to come; particularly because the resources and capacity of state institutions, particularly the formal justice system, remain beyond the reach of many communities, especially those who dwell beyond the confines of the capital city.

This report also highlights existing concerns regarding some of the negative impacts of cultural practices, which have been expressed by community leaders and members alike in all districts. Any public forums initiated to discuss these issues should engage all relevant actors at the national and local levels.

Dialogue and public debate on the theme of culture and customs should aim to preserve the spirit and values represented by customs unique to each cultural group, as a way to enhance local and national identity. In the meantime, options should be sought to minimize the diversion of excessive portions of scarce financial resources towards ceremonies and familial exchanges that could otherwise be utilized to meet the basic developmental needs of Timorese citizens. In particular, greater resources should be allocated to provide young men and women with educational opportunities and increase their access to vocational training.

In order to alleviate concerns that the cultural practices of marital dowry lead to the perception that wives are considered the property of the husband, efforts could be made by community elders and lia nain (traditional elders) to make a strong campaign to promote the value and rights of women and the need to respect them. Through such approaches, discussions around the true values of Timorese culture could serve as a source of dialogue against the practice of domestic violence.

In addition, the social impact of culture and customs on youth, particularly the practice of marital barlake (dowry or bride price) and its influence on the lives of young people who often find themselves unable to enter into marriage publicly due to their lack of financial means, should be explored in greater depth.

It appears that this strong and valuable culture of co-dependence offers great potential to form the basis for cooperatively-run micro-enterprises and initiatives that can help improve the overall well-being of communities. Overall, it is hoped that cultural practices existing in Timor-Leste can preserve their legitimacy and importance as a positive force for social cohesion, respect and harmony within this modern democratic state, while also encouraging families to invest in the health, education and developmental opportunities of their members.