Key findings: The high prevalence of gender-based violence, particularly domestic violence, in Timor-Leste is considered to be a key challenge for the country. Not only is the extent of gender-based violence a serious concern, but also the severity of the violence.
Most of the available information on Timorese women and girls from 1975 to 1999 concerns experiences of sexual violence during the Indonesian occupation. There is recognition that incidents of intimate partner violence and family violence have increased significantly since 1999; although exact statistics are lacking, various sources provide a sense of the scale of the problem. The Demographic and Health Survey 2009-2010, for example, found that approximately 38 per cent women aged 15-49 have experienced physical violence.
Various factors play a role in the high levels of violence against women and girls in Timor-Leste. These include the following.
- The legacy of violence and insecurity from periods of colonisation and occupation.
- Continued insecurity and mass displacement, with the conflicts following the independence referendum in 1999 and those subsequent to independence in 2002.
- The country’s patriarchal society, influenced by indigenous beliefs, the legacy of Portuguese colonialism and Catholicism.
- Cultural practices, such as barlake payments (dowry or bride price) at marriage.
- Poverty and social exclusion of women, particularly the economic dependence of women on men.
- A culture of impunity, and family and community pressure to keep issues of abuse within the family for the sake of family dignity and reputation.
- Newer challenges, such as the rural to urban drift, male youth unemployment, increasing alcohol abuse, and increasing prostitution and trafficking.
Advances have been made in strengthening the enabling environment for addressing violence against women, including key legislative developments and government, development partner and civil society initiatives. However, there is little analysis of the success or failure of such interventions and few programmes have been evaluated to track their impact objectively. The formal state justice system in Timor-Leste also faces significant capacity challenges. Due to various reasons women are often more comfortable going through local justice processes, though they have been critiqued for the dominance of patriarchal beliefs, and the lack of female involvement, transparency and enforcement of local rulings.