Magdalena Bidau Soares
Magdalena Bidau Soares, affectionately known as “Mana Kasian” (compassionate older sister), never attended school. During the 1975 outbreak of war, she fled her village as a refugee. Instead of learning basic math and grammar, she trained as a guerrilla fighter in the mountains of Timor-Leste, learning combat techniques, how to conduct an ambush, reassemble rifles and make gunpowder.
During the course of the war she was shot, captured, tortured and imprisoned. Upon her release she joined the clandestine resistance movement for women “Popular Women’s Organization Timor” (OPMT).
Since the cessation of hostilities in 1999, Magdalena transitioned to a peace activist and has devoted her life to improving the well-being of those in her community. She founded Feto Haluk Hadomi Timor for the widows of ex-combatants, enabling them to learn sewing, basket weaving, crop-growing and other income-generating activities. She plans to construct a road to link her village with others, so that the communities can connect and sell their products at the markets too.
Even though Magdalena is illiterate, it has not stopped her from founding a pre-school and a junior school for children in her area using her modest veteran’s pension. Operating on a shoestring budget these schools offer the only local educational opportunities for young children, particularly girls, in her area.
Founding the schools has used all of the meager funds Magdalena has access to, leaving very little for herself. She lives a simple life as a villager, even sharing a house with others, and is greatly respected and admired by her community.
Magdalena dedicates her life to the ongoing struggle for peace, unity and women’s rights in Timor-Leste. She says, “we have fought for our freedom, and now we have got our freedom, we have to fulfil the freedom with development, to leave it for our children and grandchildren”.