Rape and Domestic Violence: Gender-based violence remained a serious concern. In a study published in May, the Asia Foundation found that 59 percent of girls and women between 15 and 49 years old had experienced sexual or physical violence at the hands of an intimate partner and that 14 percent of girls and women had been raped by someone other than a partner. Although rape, including marital rape, is a crime punishable by up to 20 years in prison, failures to investigate or prosecute cases of alleged rape and sexual abuse were common. The formal justice system addressed an increasing number of reported domestic and sexual abuse cases, reflecting increased knowledge by community leaders and police officers that gender-based violence is a public crime that may not be dealt with through traditional justice mechanisms.
The Law Against Domestic Violence broadly covers all forms of domestic violence, including marital rape, and augments the Penal Code. While many cultural and institutional obstacles hinder implementation of the law, local NGOs viewed the law as having a positive effect by encouraging victims of domestic violence to report their cases to police. The secretary of state for the support and socioeconomic promotion of women has a gender focal point in each district, which helps direct victims to appropriate resources and supports capacity building and key actors in their areas.
According to the Office of the Prosecutor General, domestic violence offenses were the second-most commonly charged crimes in the criminal justice system, after simple assault. Several NGOs that monitored the courts’ treatment of such cases, and those providing services to victims in such cases, criticized the failure to issue protection orders and over-reliance on suspended sentences, even in cases involving significant bodily harm. Prosecutors routinely charged cases involving aggravated injury and use of deadly weapons as low-level simple assaults.
Police, prosecutors, and judges routinely ignored many parts of the law that protect victims. NGOs noted that fines were paid to the court and often came from shared family resources, further hurting the victim. Between January and August, however, judges sentenced defendants convicted of domestic violence offenses to incarceration in at least nine cases, a significant increase over the previous year.
The PNTL’s Vulnerable Persons Units (VPUs) generally handled cases of domestic violence and sexual crimes. The unit, however, does not have enough staff to provide a significant presence in all areas of the country, necessitating the involvement of other police units, especially community police, who are commonly present at the village level. Women’s organizations considered VPU performance as variable but improved.
The government and civil society actively promoted awareness campaigns and provided training to government responders to combat all forms of violence against women.
The Ministry of Social Solidarity is charged with providing assistance to victims of domestic violence. During the year ministry staff in each district included a gender-based violence focal point to coordinate a referral network, a coordinator for the Bolsa de Mae (Mother’s Purse) support fund, and two additional staff who focused on children’s issues. Due to staff shortages, the ministry had difficulty responding to all cases. To deal with this problem, the ministry worked closely with local NGOs and service providers to offer assistance to victims of violence, including shelters, a safe room at the national hospital, financial and food support, and escorts to judicial proceedings.
Sexual Harassment: The labor code prohibits sexual harassment in the work place, but such harassment reportedly was widespread. Relevant authorities processed no such cases during the year (see section 7.d.).
Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children; manage their reproductive health; and have access to the means to do so free from discrimination, coercion, and violence. Economic, cultural, and religious considerations and distance (in rural areas) sometimes limited women’s reproductive rights. Unmarried girls and women under age 20, for example, may be denied reproductive health services. Additionally, in many areas, service providers sometimes required a husband’s permission before providing reproductive health services. Healthcare was not readily available for complications associated with abortion due to overall lack of women’s healthcare and the criminalization of abortion.
According to estimates from the UN Population Division, 27.2 percent of women of reproductive age used a modern form of contraception. The Ministry of Health and NGOs promoted both natural and modern family planning methods, including the distribution of intrauterine devices, injectable contraceptives, and condoms, although government efforts heavily focused on natural methods. NGOs noted government clinics lacked the capacity and understanding to dispense some contraceptives properly and that clinics often lacked contraceptive stocks. Local service providers provided more than 50 percent of reproductive services.
According to 2015 World Health Organization estimates, the average maternal mortality rate in the country was 215 deaths per 100,000 live births. Access to maternal health services remained a challenge for persons in rural areas, although each district has at least one medical facility that provides maternal care. Sixty-one percent of mothers received antenatal care from a medical professional, and 32 percent of mothers received post-partum care. Recent efforts by the government and NGOs have expanded access to midwives and other skilled professionals, in addition to increasing access to information and use of breastfeeding.
Discrimination: The constitution states that “women and men shall have the same rights and duties in all areas of family life and political, economic, social, cultural life,” but it does not specifically address discrimination.
Some customary practices discriminate against women, including traditional inheritance systems that tend to exclude women from land ownership. There have been complaints that the company registering land claims used forms that do not protect women’s rights to property or follow best practice related to gender.
Other cultural practices, such as payment of a bride price as part of marriage agreements (barlake), also occurred in some areas and have been linked to domestic violence and to the inability to leave an abusive relationship. Additionally, in some communities a widow was forced to marry one of their husband’s family members or leave their husband’s home if they did not have children together.
Some women reported employment discrimination based on marital status (see section 7.d.).
The Secretary of State for the Support and Socio-Economic Promotion of Women is responsible for the promotion of gender equality. Several NGOs focused on women’s issues and collaborated in a powerful network.
Birth Registration: Children acquire citizenship through birth within the country or by having a citizen parent or grandparent. A central civil registry lists a child’s name at birth and issues birth certificates. The rate of birth registration was low, especially in rural areas, but increasing. The government reported that children separated from their parents or those whose biological father is unknown have the right to access the registry through other responsible family members. There were no reports of discrimination based on birth registration. While access to services such as schooling does not depend on birth registration, birth registration is necessary to acquire a passport. Registration later in life requires only a reference from the village chief.
Education: The constitution stipulates that primary education shall be compulsory and free. The law requires nine years of compulsory education beginning at six years of age; however, there is no system to enforce attendance, nor is there a system to ensure that the provision of education is free. Language issues and teacher quality hampered the education system. Dropout rates were often very high due to distance, malnutrition, teenage pregnancy, or lack of parental support. While public schools were tuition-free, students paid for supplies and uniforms. The most recent UN and government statistics available (2010) indicated that approximately 20 to 30 percent of primary school-age children nationwide were not enrolled in school, with non-enrollment substantially higher in rural than in urban areas. While initial attendance rates for boys and girls were similar, girls often were forced to leave school if they became pregnant and faced difficulty in obtaining school documents or transferring schools. Lack of sanitation facilities at some schools also led some girls to drop out upon reaching puberty.
Child Abuse: The law protects against child abuse; however, abuse in many forms was common. Sexual abuse of children remained a serious concern. Despite widespread reports of child abuse, few cases entered the judicial system. Observers criticized the courts for handing down shorter sentences than prescribed by law in numerous cases of sexual abuse of children during the year. NGOs and some parliamentarians were vocal on the need for a comprehensive law on incest, but none has been passed.
While the Ministry of Education has a nominal zero tolerance policy for corporal punishment, there is no law on the issue, and reports indicated the practice was common. An organization working on children’s rights found that in 87 schools across six districts, an average of three cases of corporal punishment were reported every day at each school.
Early and Forced Marriage: Although a marriage cannot be registered until the younger spouse is at least age 16, cultural, religious and civil marriages were recognized in the civil code. Cultural pressure to marry, especially if a girl or woman becomes pregnant, was strong. Underage couples cannot officially marry, but are often married de facto once they have children together. Forced marriage rarely occurred, although reports indicated that social pressure sometimes encouraged victims of rape to marry their attacker or persons to enter into an arranged marriage where a bride price was paid According to the most recent information from UNICEF (2010), an estimated 19 percent of girls married prior to the age of 18.
Sexual Exploitation of Children: Sexual assault against children was a significant problem, but one that cultural taboos left largely unaddressed. Some commercial sexual exploitation of children also occurred. The penal code makes sexual conduct by an adult with anyone below the age of 17 a crime, and increases penalties when such conduct involves victims younger than 14. The penal code also makes both child prostitution and child pornography crimes, but defines a “child” for purposes of those provisions as a “minor less than 17 years of age,” leaving 17-year-old children vulnerable to commercial sexual exploitation. The penal code also criminalizes abduction of a minor.
There were reports that child victims of sexual abuse were sometimes forced to testify in public fora despite a witness protection law that provides for video link or other secure testimony.
International Child Abductions: The country is not a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Abduction at travel.state.gov/content/childabduction/en/legal/compliance.html.
There was no indigenous Jewish population, and there were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.
Trafficking in Persons
See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/.
Persons with Disabilities
The constitution grants equal rights to and prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities in addition to requiring the state to protect them. No specific legislation addresses the rights and/or support of persons with disabilities.
The Ministry of Social Solidarity is responsible for protecting the rights of persons with disabilities. The Ministry of Health is responsible for treating mental disabilities. In many districts, children with disabilities were unable to attend school due to accessibility problems. There were no special educational services for children with mental or learning disabilities. Training and vocational initiatives did not address the needs of persons with disabilities.
Electoral regulations provide accommodations, including personal assistance, to enable persons with disabilities to vote.
Service providers noted that domestic violence and sexual assault against persons with disabilities was a growing concern. They indicated further that such cases had been slow to receive support from the justice sector. Persons with mental disabilities accused of crimes are entitled to special protections by law. The public defender worked closely with the police to ensure suspects with mental disabilities received prompt access to a lawyer and prosecution worked to ensure proper protections in proceedings. Prisons do not have specific supports for persons with mental disabilities.
There were reports that persons with mental disabilities sometimes faced discriminatory or degrading treatment due in part to a lack of appropriate community support or lack of referral to existing resources. There was a deficit of qualified psychologists in the country, and no long-term treatment facilities for those with mental disabilities. There is one Ministry of Health professional per district; however, lack of transportation hinders access. District offices often did not have sufficient supplies of drugs, and many with mental disabilities had to wait several months for drugs.
Long-standing tensions between persons from the eastern districts (Lorosa’e) and western districts (Loromonu) seemed to have eased, and observers reported no incidents. Anger toward the Chinese minority continued, especially due to resentment over their perceived economic advantages. Communities and politicians called for stricter regulations on Chinese businesses and for better enforcement of laws against persons working in-country on tourist visas, a perceived pattern among Chinese visitors.
Acts of Violence, Discrimination, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
The constitution and law are silent on same-sex relations and other matters of sexual orientation and gender identity. The PDHJ worked with civil society organization CODIVA (Coalition on Diversity and Action) to increase awareness in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community regarding processes available for human rights complaints. While physical abuse in public or by public authorities was uncommon, LGBTI persons were often verbally abused and discriminated against in some public services, including medical centers. CODIVA noted that transgender members of the community were particularly vulnerable to harassment and discrimination. Those working with LGBTI individuals noted that abuse most commonly occurred within the family.
Access to education was limited for some LGBTI individuals who were removed from the family home or who feared abuse at school. Transgender students were more likely to experience bullying and drop out of school at the secondary level. Several openly gay and lesbian individuals held positions in government, but other LGBTI individuals believed their orientation might be a barrier to entry into government service.
HIV and AIDS Social Stigma
The National AIDS Commission is responsible for providing information, programming, and campaigns on HIV/AIDS; however, no government body had been tasked with providing specific services and advocacy.