Timor-Leste Draws its Line on Domestic Violence

Author: Sophie Raynor, Stephani Soejono

She was 21 and fed up. She went to the village head to tell him it was enough. She was the eldest of nine surviving children out of 14—children who had grown up in the quiet coffee forests of rural Timor-Leste, in a home filled with violence and fear. She visited the home of the xefe aldeia, the chief of her sub-village, to report her father’s decades-long acts of violence against her mother.

She told of her father’s anger, his aggression, their fear; the money for school fees that instead went to card games and palm wine, the childhood lived terrified and unsettled, permanently on edge. “Apa tenke para ona ho violensia,” she said to the chief. My father must stop with this violence.

Nee ultima ona.This is now ultimate. Final.

Some people in Timor-Leste say spouses beating one another is like a spoon and a plate (“fen-laen baku malu hanesan bikan ho kanuru”). People always do this, so it’s their problem; a problem for the home. With high rates of poverty and unemployment across the country, economic and psychological pressures wear families down—it isn’t uncommon for violence to materialise in the stress of getting through the days.

Her father, who we’ll call Manuel to protect the family’s privacy, had that day been playing cards at a neighbour’s house; placing small bets, idling away the late morning. He returned home upon running out of money to ask his wife, Luciana*, for some cash to continue betting.

She poured her husband sweetened black coffee from the cookpot bubbling on the dirt-floor kitchen’s open fire; he picked up the cup. “No,” she said, “there’s not enough money, we don’t have any.” He insisted. She stood firm.

Suddenly, he reached beneath the coffee pot, took a smouldering log from the fire, and threw it towards her with all his might. The sparks from the ashy branch ignited her trousers. She still said, “no, no”—he then sprayed a mouthful of hot coffee in her face. She turned and ran out of the house. He pulled out a machete and followed her, but she made it to a neighbour’s to hide in safety. All the while their children were right there at home, watching.

Manuel left the house; stalking towards the home where their eldest daughter lives. Later, the daughter would recall to the court the words her father told her: “You can hide your mother, but within a week you will only remember her name.”

A sentencing first

“For the first time, the Dili District Court imposed an effective prison sentence against a defendant in a crime… characterised as domestic violence,” the Dili-based NGO JSMP wrote in a press release. The organisation observes and analyses court cases, monitoring the Timorese judicial system.

A year-and-a-half after his offence, Manuel was found guilty of the crime of “simple offences against physical integrity characterised as domestic violence against his wife”, contained within Article 145 of the country’s Penal Code.

Despite having no prior convictions, he was sentenced to a term of imprisonment of one year—an unusually firm sentence for a first-time offender. The JSMP researcher who observed the proceedings, Rita de Jesus Guterres, says the court simply didn’t believe Manuel’s claims that the violence hadn’t happened.

“During the proceedings he lied,” she tells New Naratif. “He said he didn’t carry the charcoal to [his wife], he didn’t hit her, he said yes he drinks sometimes but only sometimes, like this. The court believed the victim.”

“[We] believe that this decision will provide a reference point and establish jurisprudence in other cases of domestic violence in the future.”

She says the court considered the fact that the offence had happened in front of children as an aggravating factor, which led to the sentence of imprisonment. First-time offenders usually receive suspended sentences, or fines.

JSMP described the decision as a “major step forward for the justice sector”, and its executive director Luis de Oliveira Sampaio said in a statement that JSMP hopes this decision can prevent crimes involving family members in the future.

“Although there is inconsistency in decisions handed down in different [domestic violence] cases, JSMP believes that this decision will provide a reference point and establish jurisprudence in other cases of domestic violence in the future,” he said.

The importance of community support

For generations, violence between family members has been seen as a private issue in Timor-Leste; an intimate problem to be resolved between individuals and families, or within cohesive local structures.

Traditional or customary law is known as lia, which in Tetun can also mean “word”, “voice” or “language”, reflecting traditions of oral dispute resolution. Communities have elders known as lia-na’in; word-owners or word-masters, who make decisions and resolve problems. In a close-knit village of just a few hundred people, whom you see and speak with every day, people find that it makes much more sense to air each side of a conflict with a respected and proximate local leader, whose punishment stands firm, and whose judgement side-steps the protracted, adversarial and complicated processes of the formal justice system, which can take years to deliver—if at all.

Marcelina Amaral, a lawyer with the local women’s and children’s legal assistance service ALFeLa, says that communities can use this to sidestep responsibility for incidences of domestic violence—particularly in the common case of de facto couples.

Stephani Soejono

While many couples in the predominantly Catholic country aren’t married in the church, traditional weddings—where a woman’s customary law representatives sit to negotiate with her partner’s—are common. But if a couple is living together before this, families and the church turn away from victims.

“When the husband beats the wife, she wants to go to the family to solve it,” Amaral says. “The family says, ‘oh, we haven’t spoken with his [elders] yet.’ They don’t want to be responsible. And then if a woman doesn’t find justice in the family, she wants to go to her church. But the priest can’t receive her; ‘you’re not married in the church, it’s not my responsibility.’ So, culture can’t grant justice, church can’t grant justice, civil law can’t grant justice.”

“Culture can’t grant justice, church can’t grant justice, civil law can’t grant justice.”

But she says women and victims are now much better supported than they have previously been. Determined lobbying by hordes of civil society organisations culminated in 2010 in the promulgation of the country’s first Law Against Domestic Violence—a key victory in a civil law system where what’s written should be clear to all. A tight coalition of civil society actors and police units for vulnerable people makes up the rede referal, or referral network, through which women like Luciana can access services designed to protect and help them.

Luciana received cost-free support from both ALFeLa and its rede partner, the decades-old women’s organisation Fokupers, which provided her with emergency accommodation in their shelter in Dili from the time she made her claim until the guilty verdict and imprisonment. Her case was also taken by her xefe aldeia to the municipality police force, which opened the investigation that ultimately led to her husband’s conviction. They’ve since separated, and she now lives safely with her daughter, who first brought the case.

De Jesus Guterres, the JSMP researcher, says reporting requires tenacity and support.

“The women who receive support from organisations like ALFeLa and Fokupers are often confident to speak about violence,” she says. “They have courage to speak up, because they have people who are here to give assistance to them. But the ones who don’t come through here sometimes they’re scared, they try to hide. Sometimes after it happens, they just say oh, we’re good now, ami diak malu ona, no fighting now. They don’t want to speak up.”

The Law Against Domestic Violence classifies domestic violence as a public crime, which requires the intervention of police and formal justice processes—it’s now no longer accepted by the judiciary as the private problem many once considered it to be.

But if you’re a woman with low literacy skills, living with your family in a small, rural village on little income, tending your garden farm and raising your children, setting in motion the heavy wheels of justice can be complicated and overwhelming. And despite the support available from police and local organisations—including counselling, shelter, clothing, medical and legal help—resources may not always reach you.

When I first read about Luciana’s case, I emailed De Oliveira Sampaio, the JSMP director, to ask if we could speak about what had happened. “The domestic violence case that was handed down last month,” I wrote in my message.

His reply was polite but to-the-point. “We have many publications of case summaries,” he wrote. “Can you please indicate which case you refer to?”

Every month, JSMP observes between 20 and 30 cases of domestic violence alone, and Amaral from ALFeLa says they receive new clients reporting domestic violence every day, 365 days per year.

De Jesus Guterres says she’s observed 102 cases in the last year. Every month, JSMP observes between 20 and 30 cases of domestic violence alone, and Amaral from ALFeLa says they receive new clients reporting domestic violence every day, 365 days per year.

In a press conference to mark International Women’s Day, Maria Guterres, the director of Fokupers, read statistics from the national police force that showed that reported incidences of violence against women have increased in the last five years. But is it that violence is happening more, or that more victims are reporting?

A critical development issue

In 2016, the Asia Foundation’s comprehensive Nabilan project baseline study found that 59% of Timorese women who have been in relationships have experienced partner violence, and 14% have been raped—statistics significantly higher than what were recorded in the preceding national Demographic Health Survey 2009-2010. The Asia Foundation said this isn’t indicative of a major rise in the rates of domestic violence; rather, that previous estimates were conservative.

Home violence is systemic and pervasive. And the women who do report face a complicated, drawn-out legal process, which risks isolating them from their means of survival.

“We see many women still living in violent situations, because of their economic dependency on their husbands,” says De Jesus Guterres. “Some women try to be brave, to give themselves courage, because they receive a lot of information from civil society [organisations] when they share information, and when a crime occurs some try to take it to the police. Some try to hide it in their homes; they think of their children. Some take it to the xefe suco, village chief. Some xefe suco understand; some still say, ‘go back to your home to resolve this’.”

“Without breaking the cycle of violence, Timor-Leste will not be able to advance as a modern, liberal, thriving democracy.”

The Nabilan study described violence against women as a critical development issue for Timor-Leste.

“Without breaking the cycle of violence, which includes the normalisation of physical, sexual and intellectual abuse of women, Timor-Leste will not be able to advance as a modern, liberal, thriving democracy with a healthy population,” it said.

“Through its struggles for independence and journey to nationhood, Timor-Leste has shown itself to be a nation of great resolve and strategic thinking. This matter of violence against women and children must be seen in the same light, and it will have far reaching implications not just for women and children, but for the nation as a whole, both domestically and internationally.”

Thinking of her family

Luicana gave evidence against her husband in court. Lawyers asked her why, if this violence had been happening for years, she had never brought a case before. She told them she was waiting; she had to think of her children—the youngest is nine years old, and she didn’t want to break apart the family while they were too young.

“My husband is unique in our family as the one who can sustain us for the future,” she said. “I’m thinking of my children’s future, I don’t want them to lose love for their father.” So, she waited.

Under Timorese law Luciana’s daughter, who first raised the case with police, wasn’t obligated to testify against her father. And, unusually, he remained in the room as she addressed the court—defendants are usually required to be removed from courtrooms so witnesses can speak freely. De Jesus Guterres says she observed Manuel in the courtroom as his daughter testified—at times through tears, but clear-voiced and with resolve.

If you hit your wife, you must receive a punishment like this one.

I suggest to De Jesus Guterres that she must have been happy to hear the sentence. Or surprised?

“If we’re to say we’re happy, we’re not happy,” she says, quietly. “Surprised? We also don’t feel like that. We see through this crime that he must receive the right punishment for what he did. His treatment of his wife was cruel. Nia tenke hetan; he must receive.”

De Jesus Guterres says that the court considered the sentence an example for other people: to demonstrate the consequences of committing domestic violence. “Baku fen tenke hetan kastigu hanesan nee,” she says. If you hit your wife, you must receive a punishment like this one. 


Sophie Raynor

Sophie Raynor is a freelance writer based in Dili, Timor-Leste, interested in gender, youth and politics in Southeast Asia. She is on Twitter @raynorsophie.

Stephani Soejono

Stephani is an illustrator/comic artist based in Jakarta. She is passionate about South East Asian culture and its representation. You can find her work at @soejon0stephani on Instagram and contact her at stephani.soejono@gmail.com.

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