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 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 (latest data available) 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.
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 help. Local NGOs operated shelters; however, demand for these services exceeded capacity. Local and international civil society collaborated with government to educate the public and train police and the military about combatting gender-based violence.
Sexual Harassment: The labor code prohibits sexual harassment in the workplace. No complaints were filed during the year, but workplace and public harassment reportedly was widespread (see section 7.d.).
Reproductive Rights: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities. Cultural and religious considerations sometimes limited access to sexual and reproductive health services. Some unmarried girls and women younger than age 20, for example, were denied reproductive health services due to service provider beliefs. 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; such services did not include emergency contraception.
In the World Health Organization 2021 World Health Statistics Report, the maternal mortality ratio was estimated at 142 deaths per 100,000 live births. Access to maternal health services was a problem in rural areas. The 2016 Timor-Leste Demographic and Health Survey (the most recent available) reported 77 percent of mothers received prenatal care from a medical professional, but only 35 percent of mothers received postpartum care; 57 percent of births were attended by a skilled health professional.
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,” and prohibits discrimination based on gender. 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 was 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 (2017-2021) campaigns to combat domestic violence and to implement a gender-sensitive budget policy, among other responsibilities.
Systemic Racial or Ethnic Violence and Discrimination
The constitution states that “no one shall be discriminated against on grounds of color, race, marital status, gender, ethnic origin, language, social or economic status, political or ideological convictions, religion, education and physical or mental condition.” The penal code establishes aggravating factors in determining penalties, including crimes motivated for racist reasons or other discriminatory sentiments, including due to ethnicity or nationality. The code also makes racial or religious discrimination criminal acts. Groups organized to incite or encourage discrimination based on race or religion face imprisonment of between four and 12 years. Those who through written or other social communication means seek to spread ideas with the intent to incite racial or religious discrimination or encourage or provoke violence against a person or group of persons based on race, color, ethnic origin, or religion may be punished with imprisonment from two to eight years. The government generally enforced these laws.
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 difficulties, 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.
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 forced persons to enter 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 commercial sex 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.
Trafficking in Persons
See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
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 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. Schools lacked wheelchair access and other infrastructure for inclusive education, according to a national disabilities NGO.
In October the government approved the National Action Plan (2021-2030) for persons with disabilities. Increasing vocational training opportunities and access as well as making health facilities accessible for persons with disabilities were among the priorities.
Electoral regulations provide for 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.
Persons with mental disabilities accused of crimes are entitled by law to special protections.
HIV and AIDS Social Stigma
According to civil society organizations, HIV and AIDS patients experienced social stigma and were, as a rule, 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.
Acts of Violence, Criminalization, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
The constitution is silent on consensual same-sex sexual conduct and other matters of sexual orientation and gender identity. The penal code establishes discrimination due to sex or sexual orientation as aggravating factors in determining criminal penalties. While physical abuse in public or by public authorities was uncommon, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI+) persons were often verbally abused in public 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 LGBTQI+ individuals.
Access to education was limited for some LGBTQI+ 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 LGBTQI+ community issues in its national inclusive-education policy. CODIVA conducted LGBTQI+ awareness training sessions for national police officers throughout the country.