Women’s access to care and justice services in Timor-Leste

Violence against women and girls is a global health and human rights concern. It leads to significant short and long-term physical, mental, sexual and reproductive health consequences for women, with inter-generational effects1.

Purple Umbreela with Text Breaking the Bias for a better future

A 2016 survey, conducted by the Asia Foundation for the Nablian programme,  found 59% of Timor-Leste women reported having experienced physical or sexual violence in their lifetime2. Few women share their experiences with others, and when they do disclose, women commonly share their experiences with family and friends, as opposed to local authorities, police or service providers3. For lasting change, understanding existing community responses to disclosures of violence is key to introducing rights-based measures to redress and prevent violence.

Katherine Gilbert and Cormac Mercer provided technical support to UN Women partner Belun, a Timor-Leste based NGO, to undertake qualitative research to understand how Timor-Leste communities respond to disclosures of violence.

How does the community respond?

Family members may pursue redress through community-based dispute resolution mechanisms directly, or through the facilitation of cultural leaders (lia-nain) or local authorities as show in the figure below.

Dispute resolution processes vary across different community contexts, reflecting who is involved and the nature of the decision-making process. An exchange between the families of the victim and perpetrator often concludes dispute resolution processes. The perpetrator may offer a gift to the victim’s family, and sometimes the victim may also be expected to offer a gift to the perpetrator’s family.

A flow chart showing the Figure 1: Common pathway to reporting VAWG styl

Common pathways of disclosure for victims of violence and the resulting community-based dispute resolution, as described by respondents

Implications for future efforts at Timor-Leste’s community level

There is a need to closely examine the operation and resulting effects of Timor-Leste’s community-based dispute resolution mechanisms. Our study notes these processes compromise women’s fundamental rights to justice, safety, and confidentiality. Respondent data suggests there is a preference amongst many community members and local authorities to use community-based mechanisms to respond to reports of violence within Timor-Leste.

There are multitude of factors operating at the community level underlying this preference for community based mechanisms. Strong socio-cultural norms have the effect of normalising violence against women and girls and placing blame on women and girls for the violence perpetrated against them , with the formal justice system viewed as unable to deliver justice to both women and girls and those perpetrating violence. The formal justice system is also seen as costly, time-consuming and unable to deliver satisfactory outcomes, even for victims. On the other hand, community-based mechanisms are valued by community members for being local and familiar, and being able to deliver swift outcomes for victims, perpetrators, and their families.

Timor-Leste’s community-based dispute resolution mechanisms continue throughout communities as a response to violence against women and girls, despite legal and educational efforts to promote use of the formal justice system. Closer examination is needed to understand how decision makers determine outcomes within these mechanisms. This is an opportunity to work with existing practises to better consider women’s inalienable and fundamental right to justice, safety, and freedom from violence.

This study has formed a central part of the Spotlight Initiative on Violence Against Women and Girls and, with hope and optimism, will contribute to women and girls being able to enjoy their right to a life free of violence within an inclusive and gender equitable Timor-Leste.

1. WHO Violence against women prevalence estimates, 2018: global, regional and national prevalence estimates for intimate partner violence against women and global and regional prevalence estimates for non-partner sexual violence against women. Geneva: World Health Organization; 2021.

2. The Asia Foundation. 2016. Understanding Violence against Women and Children
in Timor-Leste: Findings from the Nabilan Baseline Study – Main Report. The Asia Foundation: Dili.

3. General Directorate of Statistics - GDS/Timor-Leste. Ministry of Finance/Timor-Leste and ICF. 2016. Timor-Leste Demographic and Health Survey 2016. Dili, Timor-Leste and Rockville, Maryland, USA: GDS and ICF

More Information

Cormac Stuart Mercer

cormacstuart.mercer@unimelb.edu.au