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Charter Outlines 10 Actions to Prevent Violence Against Women and Children in Timor-Leste

November 30, 2016

By Tamara Failor, Xian Warner

As the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence Campaign kicks off across the globe, prominent government and civil society leaders in Timor-Leste signed an important Charter last week declaring their own commitment to preventing violence against women and children.

The move is a significant step forward in Timor-Leste, where violence against women and children remains disturbingly prevalent. According to The Asia Foundation’s Nabilan Health and Life Experiences Baseline Study, three out of five ever-partnered women have been physically and/or sexually abused by their husbands or boyfriends, and approximately three quarters of women and men surveyed had experienced some form of physical or sexual abuse as a child.

Prominent government and civil society leaders in Timor-Leste sign a 10-point Charter to prevent violence against women and children.

Prominent government and civil society leaders in Timor-Leste sign a 10-point Charter to prevent violence against women and children. ©Wayne Lovell /The Asia Foundation

The Charter, developed by the Australian government-funded and Foundation-implemented Nabilan Program (Nabilan means “to shine” in Tetum), aligns with the government’s National Action Plan on Gender-Based Violence and is available as an online petition. The Charter presents 10 everyday actions to challenge the normalization of violence and gender inequality. At its core is the recognition that all people—not just government officials, local leaders, law enforcement, NGOs, or men—have the power to prevent violence against women and children in their daily lives, starting with 10 every-day actions.

Below are the key principles of the Charter:

Aspirational but practical. Research indicates that positive approaches are most effective in preventing violence against women and children. Prevention messaging should highlight the capacity of individuals, communities, institutions, and societies to continue the good they are already doing, while working toward the shared goal of a non-violent future. This contrasts with initiatives that seek to prevent violence by penalizing it, or using graphic depictions of violence to elicit feelings of shock or shame. The majority of men interviewed in the Nabilan Baseline Study were aware of existing laws in Timor-Leste that make it illegal for a man to use violence against a woman; however, many felt these laws were too harsh. Clearly, while strong laws are crucial, the existence of such laws alone is not sufficient to stop men from using violence against women.

Not just men. While our research confirms that most violence against women is perpetrated by men, preventing violence before it occurs requires everyone’s efforts. A Charter that addresses men only would not only risk alienating them, but would also ignore the fact that everyone has an equal responsibility to prevent violence and promote gender equality.

The Charter is also a call to prevent violence against children. Not only did the Nabilan Baseline Study find that child abuse is very common in Timor-Leste; it also found that childhood experiences of violence are strong risk factors for both women’s experiences and men’s perpetration of violence in adulthood. By stopping violence against children now, we can stop future violence against women and children.

Not just elites. While public buy-in from high-profile leadership is important to combatting violence, the Charter targets the general public via social media, which is becoming rapidly more popular and accessible (We are Social estimates that Timor-Leste is the third-fastest growing country in the Asia-Pacific region in terms of social media usage). The online Charter allows us to easily track the number of signatures and to contact them by email to help build a visible and active community committed to ending violence against women and children in Timor-Leste.

Locally appropriate. The Charter builds on existing, locally-led movements to end violence against women and children. It was translated into the dominant national language, Tetum, and carefully vetted with Timorese who work on primary prevention and secondary prevention as well as with an advisory group of local activists and civil society leaders. The close collaboration with Timorese experts and advocates served not only to test the language of the Charter, but also to confirm that the commitments were relevant and actionable. While challenging prevailing inequitable attitudes is important (for example, 81% of women in Timor-Leste believe a husband is justified in hitting his wife under some circumstances), the commitments also need to be relatable to the audience.

In addition to commitments to abstain from violence and to model healthy and equal relationships in the home, the Charter includes promises to respond when witnessing violence or harassment, and to be non-judgmental and supportive of victims. The Nabilan study found that 66 percent of women who experience physical or sexual intimate partner violence in Timor-Leste do not tell anyone about their experience. Most commonly, women did not seek help because of shame or stigma.

We are now working with our partners to promote the Charter broadly, on social media as well as via national newspapers and television networks. We are also working with our local civil society and government partners to share the Charter with communities in less connected areas of the country. While the influence of the Charter in changing behavior will be difficult to track, it provides the people with the opportunity to commit publicly to ending violence against women and children. It also opens the conversation on a topic that is heavily stigmatized and often kept quiet, a critical step in the struggle to creating a safe and equitable Timor-Leste.

Tamara Failor is The Asia Foundation’s program support unit manager and Xian Warner is the Foundation’s prevention coordinator for Nabilan in Timor-Leste. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.

Related locations: Timor-Leste
Related programs: Empower Women, Strengthen Governance
Related topics: Violence against Women

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