Imagine if we no longer needed the 16 Days of Activism to draw attention to gender-based violence - one of the most widespread human rights violations around the world. Imagine if, in 2030, the deadline for the Sustainable Development Goals and its Goal 5 target on the elimination of violence against women and girls (VAWG), we could commemorate an end to the 16 Days Campaign. Imagine the 25th of November (the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and Girls) becoming a day to celebrate the milestones achieved to make homes, streets and all spaces safe for all women and girls - regardless of their age, their location, their abilities, sexual orientation or gender identities. Imagine if activism countering discrimination against women and gender inequality (the root causes of VAWG) would be the norm, with visible action and investment 365 days a year. Imagine if the struggle for women and girls to enjoy their right to live free of violence became part of history, in the same way that Timor-Leste’s struggle for independence has now become a memory of times in the past.
What will it take to move these ideas from our imagination into a reality? With more than 1 in 3 married women (37%) in Timor-Leste experiencing violence from their partners in the past year, and more than half of women and men believing such violence is justified, eliminating violence against women and girls by 2030 often seems impossible and unlikely.
But Timor-Leste’s history of resistance and solidarity teach us that with a clear vision and path forward, there is a way to overcome barriers that seem impossible and unlikely. The journey to independence required leadership that is accountable to its people, commitment to invest in the winding and sometimes unpopular resistance, and space for all people – with their diverse identities, to engage and be part of the movement for independence. As with the vision for Timor-Leste’s independence, we must start with the vision that an end to VAWG is possible by 2030.
This vision can be turned into a reality if we all take individual and collective action. It requires each of us to use our power and our voices, even if we have not felt the deep and complex consequences of VAWG in our own lives. We must do more than just commit to non-violence; we must actively take steps to take apart the structures and practices which allow VAWG to continue. Violence against women and girls is growing as a shadow pandemic, made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic. It is all around us and up to each of us to choose to identify it and put a stop to it.
Similar to the three fronts of Timor-Leste’s independence struggle, there are four areas of action that can help us put an end to VAWG by 2030 identified in the 2020 theme of the United Nations Secretary-General’s UNiTE Campaign for the 16 Days of Activism: "Fund, Prevent, Respond and Collect."
First, we must fund efforts to prevent and respond to VAWG and the women’s organizations and movements that have been working on the frontlines of this struggle for decades. We need to ensure that the 2021 Timor-Leste State Budget allocations for preventing VAWG and providing essential response services can cover the range of commitments in the National Action Plan on Gender-Based Violence. Development partner investments importantly complement State and civil society efforts, such as the KOICA-UN Together for Equality Programme, the EU-UN Spotlight Initiative, the Government of Australia’s Nabilan Programme, USAID and other partners’ work. However, efforts to end VAWG must begin with adequate investments by the State at national and municipal levels given that VAWG is a barrier to women’s equal rights and the country’s sustainable development.
Second, we must prevent VAWG from happening in the first place. This involves teaching children that boys and girls have equal value in families, that each child has power over their own body and has the right to feel safe wherever they are. It means supporting young people and couples to build healthy relationships based on respect, where power is shared, and communication is non-violent. It means supporting women to be economically empowered, and socially accepted as income-earners and decision-makers in their homes, communities, and institutions. It means expecting community members and leaders to stand up and speak out against violence against women and girls; and stopping harmful stereotypes that blame women and girls for their experiences of violence.
Third, we must respond to the widespread violence by making sure that quality and essential health, social and justice services for survivors of GBV are maintained and adapted as needed during COVID-19. This means VAWG services (shelters, legal assistance, counselling, health responses) are funded, accessible to young women, women and girls with disabilities, LGBTIQ persons, and adapted to reach women and girls who might not be able to seek support. It also requires key institutions including all Ministries, Universities, companies and corporations working together to support action to prevent and create an environment in which violence against women and girls is not tolerated.
Fourth, we must collect and analyze data that already exists to inform all efforts for EVAWG. This means making sure that crime data is disaggregated by sex, age and disability. It means using data on VAWG reported to health workers, police, women’s organizations and other service providers to allocate enough funds for programmes and support services to operate. This also means that we do not need to collect new data on women’s experiences of VAWG during the pandemic to know that violence is a problem. We must remember that only 20% of women report their incidents of violence to service providers and recognize that the problem is much larger than the numbers reported.
Similar to the struggle for independence working across the three fronts of action, Timor-Leste can make history again by advancing these four areas for a future free of violence.
So, let us not only imagine this future, but invest in change. As individuals, we must call on our leaders to keep this vision high on the national agenda. It must remain central to the country’s development and cannot be moved to the margins of the COVID-19 recovery. As institutions, whether State bodies, the UN or other development partners, we must listen to women and girl survivors, individual advocates and feminist movements. Their experiences are the realities that should guide our policies and programmatic support. Within our communities and across society, we must use our individual and collective positions of power and our space at decision-making tables to work in solidarity for gender equality. A Timor-Leste free of violence against women and girls can become a reality by 2030 and turn gender-based violence into a problem of the past. It requires all of us working together to make this vision a reality for all.
United Nations Country Team in Timor-Leste (December 2020)