Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape of women and men, 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 were generally responsible for handling of domestic violence and sexual crimes but did not have enough staff to provide a significant presence in all areas.
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 the ages of 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 requiring that domestic violence cases be reported to the police and handled in the formal judicial system 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 operated shelters; however, demand for these services exceeded capacity. Local and international civil society collaborated with government to deliver public education and training to police and the military about combatting gender-based violence.
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.).
Reproductive Rights: Although couples and individuals have the right under the government’s family planning policy to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children free from violence, economic, cultural, and religious considerations, as well as factors of geographic distance (in rural areas), limited women’s reproductive rights. Unmarried girls and women younger than age 20, for example, may be denied reproductive health services. Some NGOs expressed concern that this denial encroached on women’s and girls’ ability to make decisions for themselves, perpetuated the practice of child marriage, and posed serious risks to their health. Reproductive health and family planning services were often substandard or unavailable, particularly in rural health facilities. In some health facilities, service providers occasionally contravened policy and required a husband’s permission before providing reproductive health services.
The government provided access to sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of sexual violence.
In 2017 the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated maternal mortality at 215 deaths per 100,000 live births. Access to maternal health services remained a challenge in rural areas, although each district had at least one medical facility providing maternal care. The WHO reported 76 percent of mothers received antenatal care from a medical professional, but only 34 percent of mothers received postpartum care; 56 percent of births were attended by a skilled health professional. According to the UN Population Division, 49 percent of girls and women ages 15 to 49 used 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 focused heavily on natural methods. NGOs noted that government clinics lacked the capacity and understanding to dispense some contraceptives properly and that clinics often lacked contraceptive stocks.
Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.
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. This includes implementation of National Plan of Action against Gender-Based Violence campaigns to combat domestic violence and to implement a gender sensitive budget policy among other responsibilities.
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 were 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.
Children born to stateless parents born in the country acquire citizenship. Children born in the country to foreign parents may declare themselves Timorese once they are 17 or older.
Education: The constitution stipulates that primary education shall be compulsory and free according to the state’s ability. 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 2018 government statistics, the net enrollment rate for primary education was 88 percent, while the net enrollment rate for secondary education was 35 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. 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. In January the Dili District Court held an initial hearing in the case of a father alleged to have committed incest with his daughter. The prosecutor charged the father with sexual abuse of a minor in the form of domestic violence and incest; the father confessed to the allegations.
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.
Child, 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 (2017), 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. The penal code, however, makes sexual conduct by an adult with anyone younger than 17 a crime if the adult takes “advantage of the inexperience” of the younger person, and it increases penalties when such conduct involves victims younger than 14. Some commercial sexual exploitation of children occurred. The penal code makes both child prostitution and child pornography crimes. It defines a “child” for purposes of those provisions as a “minor less than 18 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 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/reported-cases.html.
There was no indigenous Jewish population, and there were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.
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 law provides for financial subsidies to the elderly and 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 in 2019; however, the government had not implemented the policy by year’s end. Schools lacked wheelchair access and other infrastructure for inclusive education, according to a national disabilities NGO.
Civil society representatives complained that a national disabilities action plan formulated under the previous government was never implemented due to budgetary issues and lack of sensitivity within the line ministries. The current government did not act on plans for a national council for persons with disabilities prepared under the previous government, according to a national disability 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 2018 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.
In September 2019 police received a formal complaint involving a widely publicized assault of a woman with psychosocial disabilities by two individuals in university uniforms. The case was forwarded to the Office of the Prosecutor and was pending trial.
Persons with mental disabilities accused of crimes are entitled by law to special protections.
Acts of Violence, Criminalization, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
The constitution and law are silent on consensual same-sex sexual conduct and other matters of sexual orientation and gender identity. In a 2019 speech on the day of a Pride March in Dili, President Lu-Olo called for a society where “all citizens can live free from discrimination, violence, and fear.” While physical abuse in public or by public authorities was uncommon, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons were often verbally abused and discriminated against in some public services, including at medical centers. The NGO CODIVA (Coalition on Diversity and Action) noted transgender members of the community were particularly vulnerable to harassment and discrimination. A 2017 study conducted for Rede Feto, the national women’s advocacy network, of lesbian and bisexual women and transgender men in Dili and Bobonaro documented the use by family members of 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. Civil society organizations asked the government to include LGBTI community issues in its national inclusive-education policy. CODIVA conducted LGBTI awareness training sessions for national police officers throughout the country.
HIV and AIDS Social Stigma
According to civil society organizations, HIV and AIDS patients experienced social stigma and were ostracized by their families and communities. The national HIV/AIDS commission provided training to medical staff on fair and humane treatment for HIV/AIDS patients, with the goal of reducing discrimination patients encountered at hospitals and medical centers.