On 3 May, Timor-Leste’s Law Against Domestic Violence was passed by parliament eight years after it was first drafted.
“This law is very important for Timor-Leste, because domestic violence here is very common,” said Armando da Costa, of the Secretary of State for the Promotion of Equality (SEPI), which drafted the law. “This law is not aimed at imprisoning people, but to honour human rights.”
While there is no comprehensive data on domestic violence, 400 cases were registered in 2008, according to the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM). The majority go unreported.
Domestic violence has technically been a crime since 2009 under the penal code, but the laws failed to clearly define the crime and mandate victim support services.
Pornchai Suchitta, country representative for the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), said the new law would help bring domestic violence out of the private and into the public domain.
“Police will be bound to investigate domestic violence crimes and victims will, under law, have access to emergency medical, shelter, psycho-social and legal support services,” he said.
It will also ensure victims receive money from perpetrators and emergency government funds when necessary, said Da Costa, as well as mandate public awareness campaigns and the incorporation of domestic violence education into the school curriculum.
Photo: Angela Dewan/IRIN
“He constantly beat me and the children. But this time, it was so bad, I had to leave"
|Maria da Costa, left, and a worker at the Fokupers shelter for women in Dili|
However, changing people’s perception of the problem will not be easy.
Many Timorese women see domestic violence as an acceptable part of married life. Fifty-one percent of women surveyed by the International Rescue Committee in 2003 strongly agreed that “a man has good reason to hit his wife if she disobeys him”.
One lawmaker, Virginia Ana Belo, echoed this sentiment during deliberation of the draft law, saying that women “should not go running to the police [for] daily violence such as slaps and hits”.
“If it happens once or twice, they think that it’s normal, that it’s just the way husbands and wives live together,” said Judith Ribiero do Concacao, of the local NGO, Forum for Communication for Women in Timor-Leste (Fokupers). It provides shelter, legal assistance and counselling to women and children.
“They come here or call the police when they can’t take it any more,” she said. “There has been some improvement, but many women are still too afraid to report domestic violence.”
Experts say poverty contributes to the problem, as well as the tradition of paying for a wife.
“In Timor-Leste, it’s very common for men to pay a bride price, and sometimes they think that paying the price means they own their wives like they own animals,” said Flora Soriano Menezes, of the local NGO, Judicial System Monitoring Programme.
Traditionally, domestic violence cases are resolved by having the perpetrator’s father pay the victim’s father a fine, in the form of money, animals or cloth. The victim rarely benefits from the fine.
Despite the prevailing attitudes in society, the law passed with only two members of parliament abstaining. No one voted against it.
The next challenge for Timor-Leste is implementing the law.
“There are misunderstandings in the public about whether the law will weaken families, so we have to raise awareness to change mistaken negative perceptions of the law,” said Da Costa from SEPI. “We want people to understand that domestic violence is a crime and that violence in the family hurts families.”
Too scared to go home
After Maria da Costa was beaten unconscious by her husband for giving money to her church last June, she and her three children fled to the closest shelter, 15km north of their home in Letefoho, and reported the incident to the police.
“He constantly beat me and the children. But this time, it was so bad, I had to leave,” the 25-year-old said from a shelter in the capital, Dili, where she has now lived for seven months.
She had enough money for three months, but now penniless, she needs work, a home and government assistance to send her children to school again. “I don’t have money now, and I’m too scared to go back to my farm,” she said.