Weekly Insights and Analysis

Timor-Leste’s Law on Domestic Violence Just the Beginning

March 4, 2015

By Kathryn Robertson

On February 16, Dr. Rui Maria de Araújo delivered his first speech as new prime minister of Timor-Leste, driving home a commitment to peace, reconciliation, economic development, and poverty reduction. He also emphasized the need to build a more inclusive society, including empowering women, who, despite having a high representation in parliament compared to other countries in Asia and the world, still encounter violence both at home and society.

No country is immune to the problem of violence against women. Globally, one in three women will experience violence from their partner in their lifetime. Research by the Ministry of Finance in Timor-Leste found that 38 percent of women aged 15-49 have experienced violence at some point in their life. Many women never come forward about their abuse, or are prevented from taking action to stop the abuse due to barriers such as fear, lack of access to support networks, or beliefs that problems should be kept within the family. These issues are common in all countries – not just Timor-Leste. Here in Timor-Leste, the issues are compounded by poverty, poor infrastructure, and the isolation of many rural families.

At the same time, Timor-Leste has seen significant accomplishments regarding women’s equality after many years of struggle. During the Indonesian occupation, Timorese women came to provide shelter and safety to other women who faced violence from partners or security forces. Following the violent clashes in 1999 which tore the country apart but also ushered in independence, women quickly called for attention to abuses suffered in the process and the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women made an important visit to the country, signifying that violence against women was indeed a human rights violation which needed to be investigated. Women’s activists, both Timorese and international, took opportunities during the formation of the new nation to ensure that women’s equality was considered in the process of nation building, particularly in terms of the Constitution (guaranteeing full equality of women and men) and machinery of government (with an office for the Promotion of Equality being established in the first government). They also pushed for women’s political participation, with Timor-Leste now having one of the highest rates of female representation – one in three national parliamentarians are women.

Violence against women was identified as a critical issue at the first National Women’s Congress in 2000, which brought together hundreds of women from across the country. This set out the first Platform for Action on women’s issues in the new nation. Violence against women was identified as a key issue for action.

Women talked about human rights violations they had been subjected to during the Indonesian occupation, but they also spoke out about violence at home. The Commission for Reception, Truth, and Reconciliation, which operated from 2001-2005, provided a much-needed space for women to tell their stories and to document the abuses women faced. However, today, more needs to be done to ensure justice and healing for these women. In particular, women who were forced into relationships with Indonesian military and who had children by them can face continued marginalization, into the next generation, as their children do not have proper identification documentation. A lack of political will and a preference to valorize the mostly men who were part of the structures of the resistance has meant that there has been little to no action on support or reparations to women who supported the resistance or were victims of abuses during the occupation. The fruits of independence have not yet been fully experienced by these women.

Women’s activism on violence at home bore more fruit, and with support and resources from the international community, there has been a huge amount of work done to establish services and systems of support for women who experience violence. Women worked together to address violence against women – shelters were established or expanded, specialized police units created, services for medical examination, treatment and documentation of injuries were established, and advocacy for greater understanding of the negative impacts of domestic violence.

This early work paved the way for a Law on Domestic Violence passed in 2010. This law formalized two key issues – violence at home is a crime and victims have a right to support and protection in a number of areas. While the presence of the law can be a reason for celebration, it is just the beginning.

With the support of the Australian Government, The Asia Foundation in Timor-Leste is working to support government, civil society organizations, and legal actors working to reduce violence, as well as communities that experience violence to ensure that the important advances make a difference in the lives of women and girls. Key areas of focus are:

  • Changing beliefs, attitudes and behaviors – even with the Law on Domestic Violence in place, violence against women will not stop unless people’s ideas and actions change. If there continue to be beliefs and attitudes which support violence as a way to deal with problems in relationships, or at its worst as a way to control women and children, the law will not be fully or appropriately applied.
  • Making assistance more accessible – donors and the government of Timor-Leste are investing significant funds to support services for people who experience violence, but findings show that most women who experience violence look for support close to home, in their family, or in their community, with less than 10 percent seeking assistance from social service organizations, yet much of the investment in programming goes to more formalized services. More support is needed for people with disabilities who are at a greater risk of violence and also find it more difficult to access services and more devastatingly to be believed when they do come forward with reports of abuse.
  • Working against impunity – Though there is now a law in place, and domestic violence has been made a crime, many cases still do not make it to court and are instead dealt with locally. Of those that do make it to court, the vast majority do not result in imprisonment – most are suspended sentences. More needs to be done to understand the impact of the law and in terms of what women want from justice systems (both local justice mechanism and formal).
  • Engaging key stakeholders in preventing and responding to violence – many actors have a role to play. In Timor-Leste, we are increasingly seeing the importance of health actors, particularly as violence has such a significant impact on women health, and health workers may be some of the few people that women interact with outside of their family.

As Timor-Leste transitions under new leadership, much attention will be on whether it can advance the hard-won gains of independence. Timor-Leste could be an example for other post-conflict nations working to close the gender gap and address violence against women – if it ensures that advances in law and policy actually make a difference in the lives of girls and women experiencing violence. A holistic government approach is needed to make this happen – across ministries, from the capital to the villages. As we mark International Women’s Day with a new government, we hope that there will be renewed focus on ending violence.

Kathryn Robertson is The Asia Foundation’s coordinator for services for the Ending Violence Against Women Program in Timor-Leste. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.


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