From Fear to Justice: Breaking the silent cycle of abuse
June 26, 2023
Maria1 was 16 and pregnant when she began experiencing physical abuse from her partner. She was too afraid to speak out and kept the abuse hidden, hoping it would stop. But her pregnancy grew, and so did the abuse.
She had been feeling very sick and her family finally found out why through some videos, of her being beaten by her partner and siblings, spread in their community. After realizing what have been happening, they encouraged her to seek legal help and report the abuse to the Vulnerable People Unit in Bobonaro’s municipality police, a new safe space recently built with the support of Spotlight Initiative, a global United Nations (UN) initiative supported by the European Union (EU), to provide assistance to women and children survivors of domestic and sexual violence in Bobonaro.
There, she received counseling, and legal support and she was also educated about the Law Against Domestic Violence and her rights as a survivor of abuse. With the help of the VPU oﬃcers, Maria was able to file a report with the police and her abuser is finally being brought to justice. Now, hope remains while she waits to be called to testify.
Today, holding a 9 months baby boy in her arms, she opens up about the abuse while her eyes can not hold the tears from coming down her face.
Unfortunately, Maria’s story is not unique. Domestic violence is a pervasive problem in Timor-Leste, one that both men and women have described as normal and sometimes, justifiable. Therefore, only a small fraction of cases are reported to the authorities. Financial dependence, cultural norms, and lack of information about the legal system are reasons that can prevent women from speaking out too.
The EU-UN Spotlight Initiative, in partnership with the Ministry of Justice, is working towards increasing these numbers by promoting awareness of the Law Against Domestic Violence and educating communities on how to access justice, so that many more families, like Maria’s, can guide and support survivors along this painful process, even in remote areas. The initiative has been working with local organizations and community leaders from Bobonaro, Viqueque, and Ermera, to engage with people in the community and encourage women to seek help and support.
But changing ingrained cultural norms is not easy. The Law Against Domestic Violence has been in place since July of 2010 but many, especially in isolated villages, are still unaware of their rights. In Timor-Leste, traditional beliefs, like the “cultural process” of solving disputes that mostly prioritize male authority, continue to be deeply rooted in many communities. Addressing these beliefs is critical to achieving lasting change.
The Spotlight Initiative believes that education and awareness-raising are key to empowering women and communities to stand up against abuse and protect their rights becoming a key element in the country’s fight to end gender-based violence in Timor-Leste. By providing education, support, and access to justice to communities we can help survivors, like Maria, to live free from violence and discrimination.
Together, we can create a safer, more just world for women and girls.
1 the name has been changed to preserve privacy and protection.
2 Timor-Leste Demographic & Health Survey 2016 and The Asia Foundation, Understanding Violence against Women and Children in Timor-Leste: Findings from the Nabilan Baseline Study, Dili, 2016