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Traditional Justice and Gender Based Violence in Timor-Leste

By: Aisling Swaine

This study was initiated by The International Rescue Committee (IRC, theirc.org) who had been working in the area of Gender Based Violence in Timor Leste for over two years. The principal aim of this study was to gather information regarding local justice systems in Timor-Leste and how these systems treat cases of gender based violence, to inform development of the organizations’ programmes responding to women experiencing violence in the home. The report is based on 32 full days of ‘field research’ (which took place between March and August 2003) in which over 60 interviews and 6 Focus Group Discussions were held with women in rural areas and with relevant policy actors at national level.

Major findings include that women have minimal and often superficial participation in local justice hearings and find that the rulings which are passed are often based on the administrators of justice own biases and cultural beliefs regarding women’s status in society. Women used local justice because of its basis in their culture and the fact that it is a familiar and known concept. It was seen however to often blame women for the cases of violence presented and women users were dissatisfied with this characteristic. Police were perceived to have more force and capacity to scare violent husbands into stopping violence, even though women cannot be guaranteed that police officers will take their cases seriously, nor ensure that they are no longer exposed to real threats. The formal justice system presents challenges in terms of biases against women and problems of access for rural women.

A combination of the two systems were thought to be most forceful by respondents. The two justice systems, which are currently running alongside each other in Timor-Leste, are failing to adequately and fairly deal with cases of gender based violence which women present to them. Both are inherently patriarchal in their attitudes towards both women and the violence they experience. However, the research finds that both systems do have positive traits which need to be built upon and provides recommendations to ensure that women’s rights are both protected and promoted in a culturally accepted way.