Women’s Struggle in East Timor

March 5th, 2014

Women’s Struggle in East Timor

“In East Timor, 80 % of men and women believe that a husband is justified in beating his wife for a specific reason, such as neglecting children, arguing or burning food.”


East Timor, also called Timor Leste, is one of the poorest countries in the world. The eastern part of the island Timor was colonised by Portugal from 1520 until 1975. Nine days after its independence it was invaded and annexed by Indonesia who opposed the formation of an independent East Timor. East Timor was occupied for the next 24 years. Human Rights Organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch claim that more than 200,000 Timorese died from famine, disease and fighting during the occupation. In 1999, 78.5% of the East Timorese population voted to secede from Indonesia. Indonesia responded with extraordinary brutality, embarking on a rampage of burning and killing across the island. Finally, on  May 20th 2002, East Timor declared itself a nation.

During the violent occupation, many of the surviving women had been raped and tortured and many had lost their children and husband. Since then, violations of women’s rights and domestic violence have been major problems in East Timor.

Indonesia and Portugal introduced a patriarchal social structure in East Timor giving men most of the decision-making power. This, combined with the history of violence within the society, along with cultural beliefs and traditions that imply that men have the right to discipline women through violence, contribute to the widespread discrimination against women and gender-based violence in Timor Leste.

Women’s work, both in the home and outside the home is generally undervalued and taken for granted as this is considered “women’s natural role” in society. They have very limited access to education, paid employment, politics and healthcare. It is common for young women to be forced into arranged marriages. Furthermore, tradition still prevents them from inheriting or owning property, despite laws against this in the constitution.

Both the occurrence of domestic violence and the acceptance of this violence are common in East Timor. Recent research by the 2010 national Health and Demographic Surveyfound that 38 % of  15-year old Timorese women had experienced physical abuse and 74% of married women had experienced domestic violence by their husband or partner, and the Demography and Health Survey of 2009 shows that 80 % of men and 86 % of women felt that a man is justified in beating his wife. Another study by UNFPA in 2005 found that 44 % of women believed that it is necessary to discipline women this way, 32 % felt that a man has paid a bride price and thus she is now his possession, and 15 % suggested that this is Timorese tradition and it reflects the men’s rights. This, combined with fear of family shame, helps to explain why the majority of women do not report the crimes.

In May 2010, East Timor passed a law that makes domestic violence against children and women a punishable crime. To support the new law, the Secretary of State for promotion of Equality together with the Provedor for Human Rights and Justice introduced campaigns and trainings, to promote understanding of the law. Armando da Costa, Secretary of State for the Promotion of Equality (SEPI) stated that “This law is very important for Timor-Leste, because domestic violence here is very common. This law is not aimed at imprisoning people, but to honour human rights.”

With the implementation of this new law we can hope that the women in East Timor are facing a brighter future.


Saturday 8th March is International Women’s Day.  Check back then to find out more about the Devadasi system and HART’s work in India.


Erika Nordblad

By Erika Nordblad

Erika Nordblad is an intern at HART. She studies politics with international relations at the University of Bath. She is interested in women’s rights and international development.

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