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Timor-Leste: The Economic Dimensions of Domestic Violence

July 22, 2015

By Diana Fernández and Lewti Hunghanfoo

“When I lived with my husband, we would struggle for everything. Every day he would drink palm wine until he was drunk, then come and make problems with us and beat me. When he worked in the fields, he would sell all the produce. Sometimes, when it was almost time to harvest the rice, he would borrow other people’s money, and they would come and clean the fields, taking everything. I would plant tomatoes and other crops, and when they were ripe, people would come and take everything from me.”

– Woman victim of domestic violence, Baucau district, Timor-Leste

As in many countries, there are myriad challenges to ending violence against women and children in Timor-Leste. Among these challenges, assumptions concerning women’s economic vulnerability and their dependence on their spouses can have a significant impact on the lives of women and children who are victims of violence. However, new research by The Asia Foundation on the economic dimensions of domestic violence challenges some of these assumptions, suggesting that a woman’s economic situation does not necessarily deteriorate when she separates from an abusive partner, and that women’s presumed economic dependency should not be the basis for keeping men found guilty of domestic violence – often very severe – out of prison.

Photo/Conor Ashleigh

The Asia Foundation released a new research report exploring the economic factors that influence women’s decision-making in situations of domestic violence. Photo/Conor Ashleigh

Domestic violence in Timor-Leste is generally seen as a private issue to be kept within households, and external interventions are often looked upon as interference. Violence, both in and outside the home, is commonplace and socially tolerated, the police are ill equipped to handle domestic violence cases, and women are often stigmatized for reporting abuse. The country’s justice systems, both formal and customary, cannot be counted on to meet the basic needs of women who experience violence. Compounding this has been a lack of political will to provide much-needed financial support to women and children victims of abuse.

As the above quote from a victim in Baucau illustrates, domestic violence can also have severe economic consequences for women within the markedly gendered and unequal structure of Timor-Leste’s economy. Men are typically much more active in the public sphere and the formal economy, while also tending to have primary access to modes of transport such as motorbikes and horses. In contrast, women are much more engaged in the domestic sphere, and are frequently involved in diverse, low-income activities in the informal economy, with limited access to public spaces.

The prevailing perception of women’s economic dependence has hindered their legal recourse against domestic violence. Domestic violence cases are often treated very lightly, with courts frequently suspending a prison sentence or substituting a fine in cases where the defendant is found guilty. These decisions are often couched in terms of concern for the victim, inasmuch as she is assumed to be dependent on her husband’s income and thus likely to suffer if her husband is sent to prison.

Under these inequitable conditions, many women in Timor-Leste find themselves relatively immobile and fearful that any disruption of the status quo may leave them and their children with no economic safety net. It is from this constrained situation that women often make the difficult choice of whether or not to leave an abusive relationship.

Earlier this month, at the Timor-Leste Studies Association Conference, The Asia Foundation released a new research report, Beyond Fragility and Inequity: Women’s Experiences of the Economic Dimensions of Domestic Violence, exploring the economic factors that influence women’s decision-making in situations of domestic violence. The research was funded by the UK’s Department for International Development and the Australian Government, and published under the Nabilan program, an Australian Government-funded initiative to address violence against women and children in Timor-Leste.

The study, involving 339 respondents, explored the sources of women’s and men’s income, who “held” the money in their households, and who had primary authority over spending decisions. The majority of women in the survey reported that they held the money in their marriages, and in most cases, women were able to make decisions about day-to-day purchases for the household, with larger spending decisions being made jointly or by male partners. But in cases of abuse, it was found that women often distanced themselves from certain realms of decision-making as a risk-prevention mechanism. Women in abusive relationships reported that they often had little or no control over household money. Some women stated that their husbands did not contribute to household income, or beat them when there was insufficient money for household needs or the husband’s social activities. Some were forced to forgo family resources so that their partner could spend money on personal items, including cigarettes and alcohol.

In the context of these forms of economic deprivation, interviews with 18 women who had experienced severe forms of abuse revealed that, of the ten who had separated from their husbands, six felt that their economic situation had actually improved, and one felt that her economic situation had stayed roughly the same. The majority of the women who felt they were better off post-separation were from rural areas and had been involved in multiple modes of income generation prior to separating from their partner. In this respect, having diverse sources of livelihood and exercising a degree of creativity to support their families appeared to be an advantage for women who chose to leave violent partners.

While the small sample of interviews for this study should not be interpreted to suggest that all women who separate from their husbands will see their economic situation improve, it does suggest that the prevailing assumption that women cannot support their families post-separation needs to be challenged. This is particularly important for the courts to consider before giving lenient sentences to men found guilty of domestic violence, a pattern that has resulted in impunity for even severe abusers. In this research, only one of the women who had separated from her partner was receiving financial support from her husband, despite the fact that two husbands had received suspended sentences conditioned on the need to financially support their families. This further draws into question the notion that male perpetrators of domestic violence remain the economic mainstay of their families in Timor-Leste, to be treated with leniency lest women be economically disadvantaged.

Globally, a woman’s decision to leave an abusive partner is often linked to the severity of the abuse and fears about safety, losing children, shame, and lack of support from family or community. But the economic dimensions of domestic violence have been an under-researched area in Timor-Leste, with most previous domestic violence studies focused on its prevalence or its purported cultural underpinnings. This latest study shows that there remains great scope to build upon previous research in order to better understand the nuanced economic situations of women who experience violence, and to ensure that misconceptions of economic dependency are not the basis for further inequitable treatment of women under the law.

Diana Fernández is manager of the Program Support Unit and coordinator for research, and for monitoring and evaluation, for the Nabilan Program. She can be reached at [email protected]. Lewti Hunghanfoo is a communications specialist for The Asia Foundation in Timor-Leste. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors and not those of The Asia Foundation.

Related locations: Timor-Leste
Related programs: Women's Empowerment and Gender Equality
Related topics: Domestic Violence


  1. Thankyou for writing this informative article. Women’s places are still limited Timor Leste. The need to always impress the family of the men that they are married too, therefore women needed to masters all the skills such as cooking and sewing. In many Timorese wedding parties and core metan (tradition after the 40 days of mourning). Men are mainly dealing with how the animals were killed and women mostly are in the kitchen. Many growing up was told that their place is in the kitchen, thus learning how to cook is essential part of being a woman, hence when they get married, the men’s family will treat them better, since men’s family paid a lot for barlaki. Barlaki is a marriage system where men are required to fulfill certain financial needs depends on how much was asked by the family from the female part. Many women every morning wake up thinking only how to impress their mother in law. Mother inlaw opinion is crucial for an everlasting marriage. Women did all the housework however still did not get recognition of the family. The term feto foun, literally translated as the new bride. The new bride who is becoming part of the family, thus she needed to try her best to impress the family. Pressure to be likable.

  2. Impresive articles, should be viewed not only single-dimension, such social dimensions as mentioned on above articles, its can be analysis by three keys social, economic and enviromental. I think we need learn from sub-dimension of economic like “efficiancy” or not behave like “animal economics” as positive way and best pratice to every house-hold or family in Timor-Leste. Ending or eliminating domestic violence rate in TL we all needed use resouces our as wise & relatistic.

    Jose Godinho

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