The government of Timor-Leste is struggling to implement a recently adopted law criminalizing domestic violence, amid scepticism that it is too much, too soon.
“We are a teenager of a country,” Maria Filomena Babo Martins, chief of training and education at the Secretariat of State for the Promotion of Equality (SEPI), which is coordinating the law's implementation, told IRIN.
Colonized by the Portuguese for almost three centuries, then occupied by Indonesia for 24 years, Timor-Leste gained statehood in 2002 after two years of UN administration following a violent struggle for independence that displaced tens of thousands.
Widespread rape and sexual assault of women and children went largely unpunished during the military occupation, and reinforced a culture where men hold power, according to a 2009 study backed by the UN Development Fund for Women.
The new law, drafted with UN Population Fund (UNFPA) support, was stalled for a decade as it made “no sense to pass a law when the country had no penal code, which was only approved in 2009”, said Martins.
Early resistance to the law has come from people who worry it will break up families, said Maria Barreto, advocacy coordinator with the local NGO East Timor Women's Communication Forum (FOKUPERS).
But Martins said the opening lines of the law make clear its goal is to strengthen families. “This is not [fast-tracking] divorces. Couples will still need to go through the currently required mediation for divorce by working with community and religious leaders.
“People are saying this is too early, that this law is not a reflection of the will of the Timorese people and was imposed by outsiders, but people who say this do not know the statistics on domestic violence here,” said Martins.
Eight out of 10 crimes reported nationwide in 2009 to the vulnerable person's unit (VPU), an investigating department created in 2001 by the UN and national police to respond to crimes against women and children, were for domestic violence. In 2008 it was also the most reported crime – 406 out of 628 cases. While there are signs in 2010 in some districts that cases are down – in the southern Covalima district bordering Indonesia, there have been five reported cases this year versus 22 in 2009 and 24 in 2008 – only a fraction of such crimes are reported, according to Covalima's VPU chief, Amelia Amaral.
“We bring every case made known to us to the court, but many victims are too scared to provide information,” she said.
Reimbursing transport costs has encouraged some from rural areas to travel potholed rickety roads to the VPU in the district's capital, Suai, but an “unknown number bear their pain in silence”, said Amaral.
To date, nobody has been locked up for domestic violence – defined by the new law as any sexual, physical, psychological, or economic violence against a family member – according to the chief of the country's largest prison, Agapito Kanto.
The law has changed little for Graciela* who has lived in an abused women's shelter in the capital, Dili, for the past six months.
“I am safe here, but I have lost my freedom. But if I stayed at home, I would not be safe and so I am waiting for my case to go through the court from here,” she told IRIN. “I wanted to leave earlier, but who would support me and the children?”
The day she fled, she said her husband beat her while she was still naked from the shower.
As a first step in publicizing the law, the government is translating it from Portuguese, the working language of the government, to Tetun, the local language.
A recently formed government committee will reach out to ministerial officials, civil society and public workers key to enforcing the law – including health personnel, police, judges and shelter workers. Martins said the agency would launch a campaign to reach the general population in 2011.
While UNFPA supports SEPI's education and training activities on sexual and gender-based violence, the government would have to pay for any additional safe shelters, legal aid and prisons needed. That cost is still unknown, said Martins.
Months after the long-awaited passage of a law criminalizing domestic violence, IRIN met survivors staying at shelters in the capital, Dili, and in the southern Timorese town of Salele run by the NGO East Timor Women's Communication Forum and Catholic missionary group Sister Servants of the Holy Spirit, respectively. Below are some of their testimonies*:
Susana, 16, incest victim with nine-month old baby
“It [the abuse] started when I was 11 years old. I told my mother, who went to the police in 2005. My father left the house [but continued to hurt me]. He was [convicted] on 24 June 2010 and we are waiting for a second court date for the sentencing. I went from the northern town of Los Palos to [district] Baucau and then to Covalima because I did not want anyone to know. I wanted to be a nun when I was nine years old, but that is not possible now. I must accept my fate and try to give my child a good life. So I swallow this secret.”
Maria, 31, police officer's wife
"How did he hurt me? How [much time] do you have to listen to me? He hit me, screamed, kicked me out - several times. This is my third time here [shelter]. He is a police officer and I went to the head of police in Dili but nothing changed. I then went to the VPU [vulnerable persons' unit of the national police] and they helped me file a case in court. But I changed my mind and before the case came to trial, I withdrew it. Now I am waiting for the court outcomes [of two separate trials, one criminal and one for divorce]. Because of culture, family, religion, I always went back to him. He has threatened me that if I tried to file for divorce, he would hurt me and my family. I would not feel safe even if he were locked up, but I have faith and want to give the justice system a try… I am not scared to be alone. I think life can be better and I want to find out.”
Rosalinda, 24, fleeing both father and husband
“When my husband beat me, I went to my father's house, but he abused me again. Growing up, he had beaten me, my mother and siblings, but I went there because I did not know where [else] to go. I am here [at the shelter] waiting for my case to be resolved and then I will go back to my family. This is my second time here [at the shelter]. The case is taking time because the court is requesting evidence, but my father has gone to the village and cannot be reached. I do not care if my husband does not look after me, but I want him to take responsibility for his child.”