At a glance: Timor-Leste

Real lives

From despair to care: Countering domestic abuse

DILI, 27-1-2003 (UNICEF)

Like many East Timorese children living in remote areas, Rosa's life is difficult. Constantly moving to escape violence and abuse, she has struggled to find a peaceful environment amongst adults who respect and care for her.

Shortly after Rosa was born, her mother left her with her godmother, her mother's sister, and went to live with a new partner. Rosa never knew her biological father and only learned of her real mother when she was seven years old. It was at this time that the problems began.

While visiting her real mother and stepfather, Rosa was told that she could not return home as her godmother had disappeared. Rosa stayed with her mother, stepfather and five stepsisters. Like many East Timorese girls, Rosa only went to school for two years because she was expected to help with the housework.

"I wanted to play with my friends around the house but I couldn't as I was busy with housework helping Mother look after my stepsisters, collecting firewood, cooking, washing and feeding the pigs. I was scared of being beaten if my stepfather found me playing. I always tried to be patient and obedient but I feel that my stepfather never liked me."

In 1999, following the violent aftermath of the referendum in East Timor, when she was 13 years old, Rosa was pushed to take a job as a housemaid with a foreign couple. She enjoyed her new-found freedom and the opportunity to play with friends after her housework. At home, however, things took a turn for the worse. Her stepfather took all her earnings and used the money to pay for his drinking.

Rosa shared a bedroom with her siblings and one night something took place that would change her life forever.

"Around midnight, I woke up and felt someone pulling at my skirt button. I found that my stepfather was naked and lying next to me. After some time I managed to run out of the bedroom and my mother awoke and asked what had happened. My stepfather denied everything but eventually admitted his fault," she says with sadness.

According to tradition, to make up for the incident he gave Rosa a pig and the matter was closed. But she no longer felt safe at home and started to sleep at her work place.

One day she found out that her stepfather had sold the pig that he had given her, so she asked for money to compensate for the loss. Her stepfather reacted angrily, beating her, throwing her clothes outside and chasing her away. Rosa's mother took her partner's side, abandoning her daughter for a second time.

Rosa explains what happened next. "I moved to my cousin's house but this didn't really help because I didn't get on with my cousin's wife. My mother visited the house, telling stories about me and saying that I was a naughty child. Then my cousin beat me with an electric cable, injuring me badly. I told my godmother and I was allowed to move back to her house. With all these bad experiences I tried to be as good as possible in order to be treated better. I did all the housework to satisfy my godmother but this did not help and she beat me. One day I was very depressed, trying to think of a solution for my life, feeling like there was no escape for me. I tried to commit suicide by eating camphor. My godmother found me in the bedroom, weak and sick, and took me to the local clinic."

Rosa began to recover physically and the doctor in charge of the clinic referred her to Fokupers, an East Timorese Women's NGO supported by UNICEF, that has been helping women and children affected by violence and abuse. After a number of visits, the NGO staff took Rosa to a shelter house called Mahon, 'Place of Shade', in Tetun. There she received assistance in the form of individual and group counselling. She found the counselling helped her to recover and gain self-confidence. Slowly she began to feel more secure in herself and safe in a new environment. She became involved in the many programmes offered at the shelter such as play therapy, dancing, singing and life-skills training. She had never done anything like this before or realized that people actually liked her. She also learned that her experience helped her understand others facing similar problems.

Although the shelter provided Rosa with much needed protection, it was not a long-term solution. Staff from Fokupers began the difficult task of mediation sessions with the family. The sessions were convened in the offices of Fokupers and in Rosa's family home. Eventually Rosa agreed to return to her family home. Fokupers conduct regular monitoring visits and Rosa has monthly counselling sessions.

Despite its new-found independence, East Timor continues to be an unsafe place for many women and children. Organizations like Fokupers offer protection, counselling and care to those affected by violence and abuse. UNICEF supports Fokupers in its important work to protect and support young girls like Rosa who have been traumatized by abusive experiences. Fokupers also continues to advocate at the national level on domestic violence, child abuse and gender equality.

Only through efforts such as mediation with the family, counselling, education, life skills training and advocacy at national levels, can girls like Rosa be protected from the often hidden abuse within the family.

NOTE: Rosa's name has been changed to protect her identity.



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