Gender-based violence is a persistent social problem in Timor-Leste. Various studies reveal the pervasiveness of violence against women and the inability of institutions to adequately prevent and respond to such cases. While there have been increasing efforts to broaden the definition of security so as to encompass the sorts of gender-based crimes people are most likely to experience in daily life, the rate of violence against women in Timor-Leste remains stubbornly high.
According to the 2015 Nabilan Baseline study, 47 percent of Timorese women reported experiencing physical or sexual violence by a male partner in the last year. Globally, this rate is 35 percent, highlighting the heightened risk of violence for women in Timor-Leste. Moreover, 27 percent of Timorese women reported being raped in the past year. The problem of gender-based violence is particularly acute for lesbian, bisexual and transgender (LBT) women. A 2017 study of LBT women in Timor-Leste finds that 87 percent of have experienced violence at some point in their lives, often from members of their own family, and that 11 percent experience it on a daily basis.
Taken together, these figures indicate that domestic and sexual violence poses an ongoing and serious risk to human security in Timor-Leste, one that cuts across economic, regional, and social groups. In fact, when asked to rank the most serious security problems facing their communities, police officers consistently cite domestic violence as the biggest concern. In 2013, for example, 50 percent of PNTL members thought that domestic violence was the greatest threat facing their locality, while only four percent cited martial arts groups (MAGs) and two percent cited drugs or arms smuggling. Nevertheless, MAGs and smuggling receive a great deal of attention in the press and in security circles, even as efforts to combat gender-based violence struggle to attract adequate attention and resources from the Government.
What are the causes of gender-based violence? In 2012, researchers surveyed 500 young men using the Gender-Equitable Men (GEM) Scale in Timor-Leste. The objective was to understand how young Timorese men think about the role of men and women in society. The research found that inequitable gender attitudes – the kinds of attitudes that allow men to rationalize violence against women – increase with age, correlate with reduced economic prospects, and are exacerbated by drinking and drug abuse. It is important to note that traditional notions of masculinity that contribute to violence are not ingrained at birth; they must be taught and reinforced over the course of an individual’s lifetime in order to become internalized. Given that these attitudes are significantly concomitant with domestic and sexual violence, changing these norms ought to be a priority; so should tackling the conditions of joblessness and poor wages that lead to feelings of anger and powerlessness in young men and exacerbate their violence against women and children.
There is also a political and legal aspect to the problem, especially when it comes to the lack of enforcement of existing gender-related laws by security sector actors and local authority figures. FM notes, for example, that police officers and suku chiefs often attempt to resolve cases of domestic and sexual violence privately, even though the 2010 Law Against Domestic Violence (LADV) designates such cases public crimes that must be reported to special investigators (SIK).
There are several consequences to treating domestic violence as a civil rather than public matter. First, when cases are not reported, at-risk women have a harder time accessing the proper treatment or specialized legal counsel offered by civil society organizations (CSOs) such as PRADET and ALFeLA. Instead, they must make due with the advice of non-experts whose approach can at times hurt more than it helps. Second, suku chiefs and police officers are unlikely to be impartial arbiters of the law, leading to outcomes that favor the perpetrator over the victim, or even retaliation against women who speak out. Third, when women and others at risk of domestic violence do not believe their cases will be referred to proper legal authorities or gender-specialist CSOs, they are less likely to report crimes in the first place, leading to an under-counting of domestic violence cases. Finally, it is worth considering how police officers’ and suku leaders’ disrespect or ignorance of the LADV erodes the rule of law over time, leading to reliance on informal over formal mechanisms of justice.
One of the biggest challenges facing PNTL and local governments is balancing local democratic governance with the formal justice system. Local customary laws are often emphasized as a means of preserving social harmony in communities, and for good reason. However, efforts must be taken to integrate judicial structures into local practices (and vice-versa) and to guarantee fair treatment and effective medical, social, and legal support for victims of gender-based violence. Ensuring the autonomy of communities and families does not mean ignoring the suffering of vulnerable people.
– PNTL should provide greater training to Suku Police Officers (OPS) on gender-related issues, their obligations under LADV, and the difference between civil and public crimes. Because OPS are collocated in communities, they are often the first respondents to domestic violence incidents and a vital lifeline connecting communities to special investigators and CSOs, especially in rural areas. Training should equip police to address the issue of gender violence impartially and to respond effectively to local needs. PNTL superiors should maintain close supervision of OPS to ensure they are meeting their obligations to at-risk populations.
– The Government and PNTL should increase public awareness of gender-related issues and the LADV through engagement with civil society, the media, and local governments. Solutions include outreach through radio, television, and print media outlets, as well as more hands-on forms of engagement such as workshops and meetings between OPS and community leaders.
– PNTL should increase the number of female police officers in the force so that it can respond more effectively to incidents of gender-based violence and gain the confidence of at-risk women and children.
– The Government and PNTL should institute educational programmes that help shift gender norms and teach laws and procedures related to gender-based violence. These programmes should target schools and youth groups, community leaders, and other community members.
– The Ministry of Justice and local authorities should maintain clear records and publicize statistics on domestic violence, including the number of cases reported to SIK, brought to trial, and resolved through formal legal means.
– The Government should consider ways that it can support the work of CSOs working on gender issues, including by financially supporting their programmes and promoting greater collaboration between civil society and Government ministries and PNTL. It should also solicit CSOs’ input when it comes to crafting and implementing policies against gender-related violence.
Only through a coordinated effort of all sectors of state and society can the issue of gender-related violence be addressed. FM urges the Government, civil society, and donors to continue to work together to tackle the most common – and most commonly ignored – threat to human security in Timor-Leste.