Access to justice and mental health go hand-in-hand. EU-UN Spotlight Initiative in Timor-Leste training the National Police, PNTL—VPU

July 18, 2022

VPU Chief in Manatuto, Ostelinha de Oliveira Carceres, a participant in Spotlight VUP training

UNDP TL/Matilde Coelho da Silva

Access to justice and mental health go hand-in-hand. EU-UN Spotlight Initiative in Timor-Leste training the National Police, PNTL—VPU, on sensitive approaches to survivors regarding mental health and trauma.

One in three women in Timor-Leste have suffered some form of violence throughout their life, often within their own household. Data suggests that few women in Timor-Leste — only around 34% — tell someone about their experiences of domestic violence. Of those 34%, only an alarming 2,5% choose to tell the police. This is associated with social stigma surrounding violence and the role of women in society, as women are mostly expected to feel ashamed of such occurrences rather than denouncing or making them public, to avoid bringing a bad name to their families.

PNTL's Vulnerable Persons' Unit (VPU) was established to assist victims of sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse. With an office in every district's police headquarters, PNTL-VPU is responsible for receiving and investigating allegations of gender-based violence. However, these cases are often delayed as VPU offices lack resources and institutional support. For all cases of violence, and in particular gender-based violence, addressing mental health is a fundamental part of achieving justice and proper care for survivors. It might further encourage survivors to come forward if they expect to find appropriate support in this regard. 

A total of 26 VPU members from across all 13 Municipalities have attended a 3-day training on “VAWG and Mental Health Sensitive Approach” provided by EU-UN Spotlight Initiative. The training covered topics such as the nature of VAWG and how it affects mental health, along with the very definition of mental health, often misunderstood by professionals. Gender bias and its impact on access to justice and police response to survivors was also covered, along with appropriate preparation and interviews for adults and children survivors, stress management and self-care.

Ostelinha de Oliveira Carceres, VPU Chief shares that "we often have to ask questions to survivors when addressing cases of gender-based-violence, and the reality we learned with this training is that there is a specific appropriate language that we can use when interviewing both child and adult survivors." Gastão da Silva VPU member in Baucau, adds that the training has taught them the importance of asking survivors for consent, before asking them about certain sensitive issues.

"It is the first time I attended a training about this topic, and I find it extremely relevant for our work on a day to day basis", says Gastão. "For example, about the stress that we are exposed to both in our private and professional lives, sometimes we have some problems at home or with some colleagues, and this will affect the quality of our work. This training helped me realize what problems we should and should not bring to the office."

"Before I thought that mental health referred to people with mental illness. Now I understand that mental health refers to all of us. This is especially relevant for my work, as we need to pay attention to survivors' mental health and also our own" says Vera Lucia Mendonça, VPU Chief from Aileu Municipality. "I suggest that this training should be extended, not only to VPU professionals, but all of the police force."


(Article by : Matilde Coelho da Silva, UNDP EU-UN Spotlight Communications and Outreach Specialist)