Connecting the Dots: Violence Against Women, Gender Inequality, and Histories of Conflict in Timor-Leste

07/06/2016 10:56

A recent study conducted by The Asia Foundation found that 3 in 5 ever-partnered women aged 15 to 49 in Timor-Leste had experienced physical or sexual violence by a husband or boyfriend in their lifetime. This might sound shocking. But, in fact, violence against women exists in all corners of the globe. What makes this study ground-breaking is not just the high rates of violence that it reveals, but that it helps us to understand some of the underlying drivers of the problem. This will inform better solutions.


Since 2015 my colleagues and I from The Equality Institute have been supporting The Asia Foundation to conduct this study which provides the first national prevalence data on violence against women in Timor-Leste. One single study can never tell us all we need to know about this complex issue. However, the results help us to understand the important connections between different types of violence in society, and the roles that gender inequality, the normalisation of violence, and histories of conflict and trauma play in this South-East Asian nation.

I spoke with Susan Marx, Country Representative of The Asia Foundation in Timor-Leste to learn more about the challenges in conducting the research, the main findings and how those findings will be used.

Why did The Asia Foundation decide to conduct this research?
To us, this research was crucial as part of our larger program aimed at ending violence against women and children in Timor-Leste (Nabilan). The Nabilan Health and Life Experiences Baseline Study is very important, as it offers new insights into this issue and into the immense implications of violence on women's health and wellbeing, as well as that of their children, their families, and their communities. We will use this study to influence our own work, but also as tool to advocate with civil society and the government to support work to end violence against women and children.

What challenges did you face conducting the research?
Conducting research of this nature in any environment is not easy, but all the more so in a nation that has suffered tremendous levels of trauma and conflict. For the most part, Timor-Leste has successfully overcome the conflicts of its past, but it still has many serious challenges, such as bad roads and limited access to clean water, low levels of literacy, and poor health and nutrition for most of the population. However, one of the biggest challenges we encountered during this research was the unequal balance of power between men and women in a very patriarchal, Catholic society. Through very careful training with the interviewers, we reinforced ethical and safe research practices. This sometimes meant challenging strong beliefs and social norms about domestic violence and the role and place of women in Timor-Leste society.


How did you get men to talk to you about their use of violence against women?
Throughout this research, it was key to establish trust with the men and women who we were interviewing. We used tablet computers for the surveys, and for the men, the most sensitive questions about violence perpetration were asked in a totally anonymous way. This helped men feel comfortable expressing views and sharing information that they would likely not share in a face-to-face interview. We also found that most male survey participants actually appreciated the opportunity to share their experiences, which included their own experiences of violence - for example, two in three men said they had experienced some form of violence or trauma during the conflict years and many still had symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.


What are the key findings?
There were many interesting findings, which you can read about on our website. Overall, three in five (59 percent) ever-partnered women aged between 15 and 49 years had experienced physical or sexual i violence by a male partner in their lifetime, and almost one in two (47 percent) had experienced such violence in the previous 12 months. The Study also shows that violence against women in Timor-Leste is a major public health issue with long-term consequences for women's physical, mental, and reproductive health. But sadly many women are failing to receive the medical attention they need.


So what did you find in terms of the root causes of this violence?
Well, we found that violence was driven by unequal gender norms, and models of what it means to be a man that emphasise strength, toughness, and dominance over women and other men. This study showed how different types of violence are actually interconnected in Timor-Leste. For example, women and men's experiences of child abuse were linked with intimate partner violence. And men who showed symptoms of trauma were more likely to have perpetrated violence against women. This is particularly important given the post-conflict setting of Timor-Leste.

What has been the reaction so far from people in Timor-Leste to the preliminary findings?
We were obviously concerned with how the results would go over, given the high rates of violence found by the study. But from the start the key was to make sure that the study findings were actually used. So we had a Research Reference Group which included representatives from government, local non-governmental organizations, academia, the national department of statistics, and others. This group helped guide the study design, implementation and review the initial findings. Sharing preliminary findings early was crucial to ensure that the study was endorsed by Timorese organisations and individuals, who will ultimately use the research.

Now that you have this information how will you use it?
We believe this research is only the start. We now have to focus on the actual work to create better outcomes for women and children survivors of violence and try to prevent violence happening in the first place. Specifically, this means working closely with government to address significant gaps in services for survivors, including access to health care, and finding ways to hold men accountable for their use of violence. We hope that the findings will be used to shape strategies to challenge the fact that some kinds of violence are considered normal or acceptable, and start to address some of the deep rooted drivers of this violence.