A Battle on Many Fronts: Fighting Domestic Violence in Timor-Leste

25 November 2003
Author: UNFPA

MANATUTO, Timor-Leste—In a hot, makeshift classroom in this small town’s police station, police officers from several districts are being trained to protect victims of domestic violence and deal with offenders. The instructor, Domingas Encarnação Soares, a policewoman, is striving to make her colleagues understand that domestic violence must be treated like any other crime.

Police instructor Domingas Encarnação Soares with pocket cards on domestic violence.  Photo: Marek Smith / UNFPA

The police officers are all young, like the population and the country itself. This youngest member of the United Nations has decided to confront an old problem head on, with the support of UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund. Timor-Leste is fighting domestic violence on many fronts simultaneously, recognizing the battle will be long and difficult.

While there are no accurate statistics on domestic violence, everyone you meet here—from the Prime Minister’s adviser to village women—agrees it is a huge problem, and it must stop. Over 40 per cent of all reported cases to the police are about domestic violence. The International Rescue Committee recently interviewed 317 women and found that three out of four had experienced some form of gender-based violence over the past 12 months.

Today, everywhere you go in Timor-Leste, you are likely to come across a poster, a t-shirt or a leaflet with the message: "Stop Domestic Violence!" Turn on the radio, and you may hear an episode of the locally produced family drama "Rua do Repolho", raising awareness of the issue through typical situations. Attending mass, you can pick up a leaflet stating that the Bible does not justify abuse and offering the Church’s help to victims of violence.

The country’s Women’s Congress in 2000 highlighted domestic violence as one of the priorities in improving the status of women and promoting their empowerment. Since then, with UNFPA as “midwife”, a lot has happened. The government, local communities, women’s groups, the police, judges, the Church, the media, health care providers and various NGOs have all engaged in efforts to end to domestic violence.

Domestic violence has many roots, explains Maria Domingas Fernandes Alves, head of the Office for the Promotion of Equality, an advisory body to the Prime Minister. She cites years of occupation and violence, a patriarchal society and gender roles, drinking, gambling and cock fighting. She also mentions the reason that comes up the most often when the issue is raised: the Barlaque, or the old dowry system that still exists. According to many, it makes some men think they have bought their wife.

Ms. Fernandes Alves, the driving force behind a draft law on domestic violence that Parliament is expected to vote on early next year, says that increased attention to the issue over the past two years has raised awareness. Domestic violence is increasingly seen as not a private matter, and more cases are reported to the police. A month ago, the General Prosecutor, Longuihos Monteiro, launched a new Prosecutor’s Manual to make sure existing laws are properly enforced.

In a country where 90 per cent of the population is Roman Catholic, the Church is one important ally. At the Centre for Peace and Development, Sister Bernadita stresses that the Church’s representatives must never treat an issue of domestic violence lightly, and should ask themselves whether they give women the impression, even unconsciously, that it is their duty to endure beatings for the sake of their marriage.

A drama group can also be a powerful messenger. Starting on 25 November, the Bibi Bulak (Crazy Goat) ensemble will tour Timor-Leste’s 13 districts with a new play addressing domestic violence. They have made TV spots and radio plays dramatizing the issue in recognizable, everyday situations and demonstrating peaceful and respectful solutions to conflict.

A poster denouncing domestic violence in Timor-Leste. Photo: Kristin Hetle / UNFPA

When victims of violence call the police for help, it is critical that they be taken seriously. UNFPA and other partners have worked to include domestic violence in the curriculum of the Police Academy, and to provide training to all officers. A set of cards that police officers can carry in their pockets outlines the steps to take when responding to domestic violence. The cards stress the need to document evidence, like bruises, to get the victim out of harm’s way immediately and to let her know of available support and counselling.

During the training session, one participant says it will be difficult to end domestic violence, because: "Here, it is as common to beat your wife as it is to beat your water buffalo. It’s just the way it is." The instructor, Ms. Soares, is not intimidated: "Domestic violence is no different from other forms of physical assault. People know that if they assault their friend or neighbour, it is a crime. Just as they can control that anger, men must learn to control anger towards their wives. The culture must change. The law is clear and applies to everybody," she says.

Maria de Jesus Maia Lourdes, a mother of four, agrees. When discussing the need for family planning in a meeting with other mothers, she says: "You know, to be able to space our pregnancies would also help reducing domestic violence. Poverty, no job, yet another mouth to feed—it increases the tension and the violence. It is a big problem here in Timor-Leste. I know from personal experience." She adds, "I don't want other women to experience what I have been through. It has to stop."

Says Dan Baker, the UNFPA Representative in Timor-Leste: "There can be no sustainable development or consolidated peace unless the goal of eliminating gender-based violence is achieved."

--Kristin Hetle

Timor-Leste, Democratic Republic of
Population : 1.3 mil
Fertility rate
Maternal Mortality Ratio
Contraceptives prevalence rate
Population aged 10-24
Youth secondary school enrollment
Boys 59%
Girls 67%

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