Timor-Leste breaks down barriers to justice for victims of domestic violence

woman in Timor-Leste
A beneficiary of the Justice System Programme in Timor-Leste. (Photo: UNDP in Timor-Leste)

An estimated 30 to 50 percent of Timorese women suffer abuse from their partners at some point in their relationship. This is in spite of the country’s 2010 Law Against Domestic Violence, which defines it as a public crime that requires the state to respond whether a victim files a criminal complaint or not.


  • An estimated 30 to 50 percent of Timorese women suffer abuse from their partners at some point in their relationship.
  • The programme supports Timorese justice institutions to provide a fair, efficient and effective justice system for all, and improve access to justice for the poor and disadvantaged.
  • The project has a budget of US $1.1 million in 2015.

Whether referred to as violensia iha uma laran (violence inside the house) or problema bikan ho kanuru (problem between a plate and spoon), it is a challenge to promote understanding that such violence is a crime.

 “When I hit my wife and her parents complain, I say that I have already paid barlake (bride price),” said one customary elder. “Hitting my wife is like hitting my animals.”

For female victims of domestic violence, deciding whether and how to seek justice is affected by concerns about preserving their extended family network. They often are economically dependent on the perpetrator, and may doubt the outcome of any complaint. Social, cultural and economic pressures to rely on customary justice can be strong.

 “Women choose the traditional way because they are afraid of the consequences if they go to the formal justice system,” explains one of the country’s few female Chefe de Suco’s (elected village head). 

Victims’ ability to access justice would be enhanced by strengthening implementation of the support mechanisms provided for in the law, and by providing more focused training and legislation to clarify the role of customary justice systems. These are the leading recommendations drawn from a study initiatiated by UNDP’s Justice System Programme, funded by Australia, Ireland, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and UNDP’s Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery.

The study looks at the legal and social context (PDF, 1,2 Mb) and the challenges women face in deciding whether, how and where to seek justice. The recommendations focus on strengthening implementation of the current law and using the country’s customary justice systems to improve access to justice for victims of domestic violence.

“One key issue this research highlights is the essential need to establish a legal link between formal state justice and traditional justice systems in Timor-Leste,” said Dr. Dionisio Babo-Soares, Minister of Justice. “For this reason, the Ministry of Justice is currently working with UNDP to draft a law that respects the primary role and responsibility of the state justice system while establishing formal recognition and legal enforceability for agreements made using the diverse local traditional systems across Timor-Leste.”

Starting in 2011, the researchers interviewed community authorities, traditional and spiritual authorities, women’s representatives, members of local NGOs, community members, justice-related organizations in Dili and representatives of all formal justice institutions in the four judicial districts. Interviewees were from 13 sub-districts in 10 districts. Timorese NGOs provided support with logistics, identifying interviewees, access to communities and translation.


UNDP Around the world