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Gender-based violence in Timor Leste

Gender-based violence is widespread in Timor Leste, yet perpetrators are rarely punished. Family disputes and domestic violence is often considered a "normal" yet very private occurrence within the family.

Gender-based violence is widespread in Timor Leste, yet perpetrators are rarely punished. Family disputes and domestic violence is often considered a "normal" yet very private occurrence within the family.

According the International Rescue Committee (IRC), more than half of Timorese women consulted in a 2003 study stated that they felt unsafe in their relationship with their husband. 24.8% of women had experienced violence from an intimate partner.

Women who married young were at significantly greater risk from some forms of gender violence, especially intimidation and control. According to the IRC study, over 60% of the women surveyed were 10-21 years of age, indicating that early marriage may put women at greater risk.

Women’s attitudes to domestic violence were significant and disturbing. Over half of those surveyed strongly agreed that “a man has good reason to hit his wife if she disobeys him.” Most respondents strongly agreed with the statement that “family problems should only be discussed with people in the family”.

Seeking justice

Women who do seek justice do so with little chance of success. Under traditional justice systems in Timor Leste, the perpetrator of gender-based violence cannot simply be punished or removed from the community for what he has done.

Often the family of the perpetrator gives an animal, such as a water buffalo, goat or pig, to the victim’s family. The gift of an animal then opens the way to “reconciliation”. The reconciliation process concludes with some form of ceremony, usually a feast. This ensures that both sides have re-established a peaceful relationship and that the community at large has no need to fear further disturbances to the social order.

Changing the justice landscape for women in Timor Leste will require concerted effort on many levels. To begin with, an act of violence against a woman must be treated it as a crime, whether it’s dealt with by a traditional chief, a police detective or a prosecutor. Impunity must not be accepted. Resources must be made available so that women can access courts if they so choose. In addition, the cultural outlooks of both women and men in Timor Leste need to change so that violence is no longer viewed as an appropriate way to resolve conflicts.

A country cannot move forward if one half of the population is held back, and if one in every three or four women is at risk of sexual violence at some point in her life. Like so many other countries, Timor Leste needs to stand up to gender-based violence. Individual and collective popular action can be a powerful force for change. As French author and Resistance fighter André Malraux has noted, "History is made by people who say no.”