Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape, including marital rape, is a crime punishable by up to 20 years in prison. The law broadly covers all forms of domestic violence. Penalties for “mistreatment of a spouse” include two to six years’ imprisonment; however, prosecutors frequently used a different article in domestic violence cases (“simple offenses against physical integrity”), which carries a sentence of up to three years in prison.
Failures to investigate or prosecute cases of alleged rape and sexual abuse were common. The PNTL’s vulnerable persons units generally handled cases of domestic violence and sexual crimes, but they did not have enough staff to provide a significant presence in all areas of the country.
Nevertheless, the formal justice system addressed an increasing number of reported domestic and sexual abuse cases. 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. Prosecutors, however, routinely charged cases involving aggravated injury and use of deadly weapons as low-level simple assaults. Judicial observers also noted judges were lenient in sentencing in domestic violence cases. Several NGOs criticized the failure to issue protection orders and overreliance on suspended sentences, even in cases involving significant bodily harm.
Police, prosecutors, and judges routinely ignored many parts of the law that protect victims. NGOs noted that fines paid to the court in domestic violence cases often came from shared family resources, hurting the victim economically.
Gender-based violence remained a serious concern. In 2016 an Asia Foundation study found that 59 percent of girls and women between ages 15 and 49 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. In this context, local NGOs viewed the law as having a positive effect by encouraging victims of domestic violence to report their cases to police.
The Ministry of Social Solidarity and Inclusion is charged with assisting victims of domestic violence. 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. Local NGOs dependent on budget transfers from the government reduced their activities because of a nine-month delay in approving the state budget for the year.
Sexual Harassment: The labor code prohibits sexual harassment in the workplace, but workplace and public harassment reportedly was widespread. Relevant authorities processed no such cases during the year (see section 7.d.).
Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization.
Discrimination: The constitution states, “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.
Some communities continued to practice the payment of a bride price as part of marriage agreements (barlake); this practice has been linked to domestic violence and to the inability to leave an abusive relationship. Some communities also continued the practice of forcing a widow either to marry one of her husband’s family members or, if she and her husband did not have children together, to leave her husband’s home.
The secretary of state for equality and inclusion is responsible for the promotion of gender equality. More than 30 NGOs focused and collaborated on women’s issues. Early in the parliamentary election campaign, this advocacy network signed pacts with the leaders of major political parties to uphold and defend the rights of women and children in the program for the new government.
Birth Registration: Children acquire citizenship by birth in the country or from a citizen parent or grandparent. A central civil registry lists a child’s name at birth and issues birth certificates. Birth registration rates are high, with no discernible difference in the rates of registration for girls and boys. While access to services such as schooling does not depend on birth registration, it 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 age six; however, there is no system to ensure that the provision of education is free. Public schools were tuition free, but students paid for supplies and uniforms. According to 2017 government statistics, the net access rate for primary education was 88 percent, while the net access rate for secondary education was 32 percent. Nonenrollment was 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. Overall, women and girls had lower rates of education than men and boys.
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. Incest between men and children in their immediate and extended family was a serious problem, and civil society organizations called for laws to criminalize it as a separate crime. Victims of incest faced a range of challenges such as limited information on the formal justice system, limited protection for the victims, threats and coercion from defendants, and social stigmatization from the family and community. A local NGO monitored 49 cases of incest between 2012 and May 2018 and claimed the actual number was far higher.
While the Ministry of Education has a zero tolerance policy for corporal punishment, there is no law on the issue, and reports indicated the practice was common.
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 they 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 when a bride price was paid. According to the most recent information from UNICEF (2015), an estimated 19 percent of girls married prior to the age of 18.
Sexual Exploitation of Children: Sexual assault against children was a significant, but largely unaddressed, problem. The age of consent is 14, according to the Penal Code. Some commercial sexual exploitation of children also occurred. The penal code makes sexual conduct by an adult with anyone younger than age 17 a crime and increases penalties when such conduct involves victims younger than age 14. The penal code also makes both child prostitution and child pornography crimes. It defines a “child” for purposes of those provisions as a “minor less than 17 years of age.” 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 Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data.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 or support of persons with disabilities.
The Ministry of Social Solidarity and Inclusion is responsible for protecting the rights of persons with disabilities. The Ministry of Health is responsible for treating mental disabilities. In many municipalities, children with disabilities were unable to attend school due to accessibility problems. The Council of Ministers approved a national inclusive education policy; however, the government did not implement the policy during the year. Schools lacked wheelchair access and other infrastructure for inclusive education, according to a national disabilities NGO.
Electoral regulations provide accommodations, including personal assistance, to enable persons with disabilities to vote. Civil society election monitors and the National Election Commission identified inconsistencies in the accessibility of polling places and accommodations for voters with disabilities in the May parliamentary elections.
Service providers noted domestic violence and sexual assault against persons with disabilities was a growing concern. They indicated the police and judiciary were slow to respond to such incidents. Persons with mental disabilities accused of crimes are entitled to special protections by law.
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 of 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 transgender members of the community were particularly vulnerable to harassment and discrimination. A 2017 study conducted for Rede Feto, a national women’s advocacy network, with lesbian and bisexual women and transgender men in Dili and Bobonaro documented the use by family members of corrective rape, physical and psychological abuse, ostracism, discrimination, and marginalization against LGBTI individuals.
Access to education was limited for some LGBTI persons 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.
In July members of civil society groups organized Timor-Leste’s second-ever Pride March in Dili. The march included participation from civil society, students, activists, nuns, and government officials and represented progress towards exercising freedom of association for all persons.
HIV and AIDS Social Stigma
The National AIDS Commission is responsible for providing information and programming on HIV/AIDS; however, no government body was tasked with providing specific services. According to civil society organizations, HIV and AIDS patients experienced social stigma and were ostracized by their families and communities.