Tackling Gender-Based Violence (GBV) in Timor-Leste

21 May 21
Martina standing outside a house in Timor-Leste
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Martina standing outside a house in Timor-Leste. Photo credit: Richard Wainwright/Caritas Australia.

Every day, Timorese women like Martina seek refuge from domestic violence. Today, Timor-Leste ranks 128th out of 187 countries on the UN Gender Inequality Index (GII) (United Nations Development Programme).

Traditional Timorese society and cultural practices, along with trauma associated with conflict and violence in Timor-Leste’s past, place women in Timor-Leste at risk of experiencing gender inequality and gender-based violence (GBV).

Timorese women continue to experience high levels of violence (ReliefWeb), despite the ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women in 2003 and other legislation which aims to protect women from gender-based violence.

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Martina's oldest daughter, Delfina. Photo credit: Caritas Australia.

Martina is one such woman in Timor-Leste, who fled domestic abuse back in 2008. “There was always violence in our home,” Delfina, Martina’s eldest daughter, says. “My mother suffered so much, but she maintained her strength to look after us.”

In Timor-Leste, GBV is the largest category of crimes reported to police, with 59% of ever-partnered women aged 15-19 experiencing intimate partner violence at least once in their lifetime (The Asia Foundation). However, this figure only represents a fraction of real cases, as most instances of domestic violence are dealt with informally and never reported to law enforcement (UNDP Timor-Leste).

In recent months, gender-based violence has reportedly increased due to COVID-19, as it is believed to have contributed to triggers for violence, such as financial stressors, close confinement of families and isolation from support networks.

“Vulnerable women are at risk of not accessing support services due to the restriction of movement during lockdown and State of Emergency measures,” says Fernando Pires, Caritas Australia representative for Timor-Leste. “Loss of employment and income by partners can add to the stress levels in the home, making women more vulnerable to GBV.”

Caritas Australia’s Protection Program started in 2016 – and now operates in Baucau, Manufahi, Viqueque and Oe-cusse municipalities in Timor-Leste. We work with 13 local partners to help to protect the dignity, safety and access to services for those most vulnerable to experiencing gender-based violence.

We have supported three shelters to provide immediate protection, support and referrals to other services for women and children survivors of violence. The shelters also provide training to enable survivors to develop livelihood skills and to help them to support themselves and their children as they reintegrate into their communities.

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Martina standing in front of her home. Photo credit: Richard Wainwright/Caritas Australia.

After escaping the domestic violence in her home, Martina decided to come to Uma Pas, one of the shelters we support, which provided her and her eight children with accommodation, food, and referrals to other services, including health and education. She also received basic financial training to learn how best to manage her money, gain economic independence, and the ability to adequately provide for her children.

Today, Martina is an inspiration to her community, her children are thriving, and she is even running her own small business.

“My life has changed completely. Before, I was living in fear and darkness with no one to help me,” Martina says. “The support I received gave me the strength and the opportunity to rebuild my life and, most importantly, to be able to provide a better future for my children.”

We also work with our local partners to strengthen their capacity to respond to cases of violence, and work together to define new strategies for engaging with and rehabilitating perpetrators.

“Local partners provide information on available support services for GBV during the socialisation of COVID-19 preventative measures,” says Fernando Pires. “They also provide loans and savings programs to vulnerable women to help them with economic security and recovery.”

This program also engages the whole community in prevention measures, including youth, dioceses, and secondary schools in discussions and training on masculinity and early marriage, and increasing understanding of the role men can play in reducing violence. Men’s groups also meet regularly to discuss domestic violence and to develop strategies to create harmony in their homes and to influence other men in their villages.

Our local partners also work with families to identify factors that contribute to violence in the family and to develop appropriate strategies to reduce its occurrence.

Along with the generosity of our supporters, this program is supported by the Australian Government's NGO Cooperation Program (ANCP).