Legal experts and NGOs in East Timor say laws against domestic violence are failing to reduce rates of violence against women.

The government is nearing the end of a three-year campaign to reduce rates of violence in the country, but NGOs say perpetrators often go unpunished.

Patricia de Araujo Fatima, an officer with not-for-profit legal aid organisation Asisténsia Legál ba Feto no Labarik (ALFeLA), says she sees many cases of domestic violence in her job.

"In the Oecusse district there is a woman whose husband cut off both her hands with a machete," Ms Fatima said.

She says the man then slashed his wife across the face, knocking out multiple teeth and causing permanent damage to her eye.

"This is a very sad case," Ms Fatima said.

In another case, a man stabbed his wife in the back of the head and struck her repeatedly with a block of wood, after an argument about feeding their children.

The man received a suspended sentenced of seven months in jail.

Many women are hospitalised as a result of domestic violence.

Every year, about 100 of the worst cases are offered free medical care and a safe place to stay by an NGO called PRADET.

PRADET says it sees more women go through its doors every year.

In 2010, a comprehensive government survey found 38 per cent of women were victims of physical violence.

That same year, the government passed the Law Against Domestic Violence and launched an education campaigned to raise awareness.

The national action plan also involves protection of victims through safe houses, as well as legal assistance to victims.

But Ms Fatima says violence against women remains alarmingly common and is under-reported.

"The situation hasn't improved," she said.

Ms Fatima says women who experience domestic violence in East Timor face a number of challenges.

"Women are economically dependent on their husbands and that is why they are scared to report their case," she said.

"They are scared their husband will divorce them and they will be unable to care for their children."

Furthermore, she says many communities still view domestic violence as a private issue that should not be dealt with in public.

"Some women do not know that domestic violence is a crime," said Ms Fatima.

"Then, when police get reports of domestic violence they keep quiet about it."

Lisa, a victim of domestic violence whose name has been changed for this report, says police did nothing when she went to them for help.

"I had a problem with my husband at home, he hit me and my face swelled up," she said.

"I reported it to police but they sent me back home."

East Timor's peak judicial-system-monitoring NGO, Justice System Monitoring Programme (JSMP), says there is confusion about the role of police, prosecutors, lawyers and the courts.

The Australian Federal Police (AFP), which provides training and support for East Timorese police, says remoteness is another major problem.

"It might take hours or days to get to the police station," said Melita Zielonko from the AFP's Timor-Leste Police Development Program, Gender Equality and Vulnerable Persons Unit.

"One way of dealing with crime is through the village or family, through negotiation."

Monitoring by the JSMP shows that East Timorese courts are clogged with cases of domestic violence.

The JSMP said the system is slow and unreliable and it causes women to lose faith in the legal process.

One woman, known only as Rosa, travelled more than 100 kilometres from a remote district for a hearing at a court in Dili.

"My husband was angry and he hit me, then I reported it to police and they sent my report to the court," she said.

After waiting several hours outside the court room, the judge failed to turn up and she returned home.

"I want my husband to promise to resolve problems peacefully, so we don't have to come back to court again," she said.

JSMP says there are only a few prosecutors, which means that the handling of cases is very slow.

Casa Vida is an NGO that provides permanent accommodation for 60 girls who are victims of sexual assault.

Program manager Grace Pitanuki says the justice system is weak and slow.

"In five years, since 2008 until now, from 178 cases only five of them have been resolved in the court," she said.

"Most of the girls don't want to talk about it anymore, because it is taking some time. They give up."

Nearly all the domestic violence cases monitored by JSMP result in a suspended sentence, which has not been proven to act as a deterrent.

"The victims are not happy with the punishment the court gives," said Ms Fatima.

"They feel that the crime is not equal to the sentence they are given.

"I accompanied one victim who said, 'My husband hit me many times, he shoved me under the bed, then he pushed me through the window. I wet myself. Why is it only one year jail, suspended for two years?'"

In another case, a man who hospitalised his wife for not preparing his lunch was fined $40 by the court.

A man who kicked and slapped his wife because his clothes had not been washed was given a six-month jail sentence, suspended for one year.

The AFP says when it comes to gender equality, East Timor's government is headed in the right direction.

The East Timor government is conducting workshops in remote districts, such as Baucau.

"The government has been very good and positive on socialising the community about domestic violence," said Ms Zielonko.

"These things take time and I'm sure things will improve."

"It's only a very young police force, established in 2002 and they need to be brought up to speed to dealing with gender-based violence crimes," said Ms Zielonko.

But Armando da Costa of the Secretary of State for the Promotion of Equality admits rates are still high.

"It needs time to change people's attitude and mentality. It's not an easy thing," he said.

"Step by step, little by little, changes are happening in the community."

 

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