Protecting the young in a new nation: Youth in Timor Leste

By Forum Tau Matan

By Forum Tau Matan.

The tiny half island nation of Timor Leste is a young country in more ways than one. In the 2010 census it was found that 41.4% of the population was between the ages of 0-14.Decades of war and instability have contributed to a spectrum of human rights abuses involving children. A dearth of legislation protecting the rights of children has exacerbated the vulnerability of Timorese children and youth.

Despite having ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in 2003, Timor Leste’s government has yet to incorporate these principles in domestic law. Though the country’s Constitution makes some provisions for protecting children, the ratification of these laws in the internal legal system is not yet in motion.

Approval of the proposed draft laws, the Child Code and the Juvenile Justice Bill, have all but stalled despite intense advocacy from local and international child rights organisations.

Documented cases of children’s rights abuses in Timor Leste begin from 1975 with the Indonesian occupation. A range of human rights abuses including physical, sexual and emotional abuse involving Timorese children have been recorded in the Chega! Report. Post-independence research since 1999 has been less prevalent. However, several studies conducted by international non-government organisations have revealed that instances of child abuse in communities are mostly resolved through traditional forms of resolution.

Alongside traditional mechanisms at the suco (village) level are the 13 government funded Child Protection Officers (CPOs) and Social Animators in all districts. CPOs are responsible for monitoring and assisting families and children at risk, while the Social Animators role is in disseminating child protection information to local communities.

Recent studies by UNICEF have shown the ratio of children to CPOs in the districts is too high, making effective monitoring impossible. In addition, access to families with at risk children is often difficult to negotiate within the hierarchical structure of suco life.

Traditionally it is the Xefi Suco (village chief) who is ultimately responsible for decision-making and conflict resolution within the village. In a joint 2011 report by UNICEF and local organisation Ba Futuru it was found that many community leaders were not aware of the role of the CPO and Social Animator in their district.

One of the most concerning areas of child protection in Timor Leste is that of juveniles in detention.

Timorese human rights NGO Forum Tau Matan regularly conducts prison-monitoring visits in Dili’s sub-district prisons of Becora and Gleno. Instances of rape and physical abuse of juvenile detainees have been found by FTM staff on their monitoring visits.

FTM’s Director Ana Paula Sequiera says that detaining children and adults convicted of serious crimes together puts juvenile detainees at risk.

“The biggest concern for youth in prisons is that they are housed alongside adults who are convicted of crimes like rape and murder. This leaves them exposed and at risk of serious trauma and rights abuses.”

Ms Sequeira believes that a separate detention facility for juvenile offenders is the first step towards reducing vulnerability.

Secondly, many offenders often have little to no contact with the public defenders responsible for progressing their case in the courts. Indefinite detention, lack of rehabilitation programs and a lack of counseling and health services often compound the vulnerability of accused detainees.

While there is yet room for improvement in creating a robust legal framework for the protection of children, there are some elements of the traditional community resolution systems that may at least in the case of juvenile offenders, provide some respite.

“The benefit of the suco council system is that youth accused of small crimes are able to have their cases dealt with at a community level without needing to progress it to the legal system.” Says Ms Sequeira.

The merits of having petty crimes addressed within a community are that young offenders do not enter an as yet developing legal framework that in some cases places them at risk through their indefinite detention.

Developing informal systems of justice alongside formal mechanisms will require many Dili-focused international consultants and Ministerial staff to shift their focus to the districts. Supporting a community’s ability to monitor vulnerable families, recognise at risk children and develop new and existing protection mechanisms are some suggestions made by UNICEF and supported by organisations like FTM and Ba Futuru.

Timor Leste has made some impressive improvements in some areas of children’s rights such as health, in particular malnutrition and malaria. Integrating the full gamut of human rights as addressed in the CRC will continue to test the fledgling nation.

Developing a robust legal framework can begin with the passing of the Child Code and Juvenile Justice Bill. Supporting infrastructure will also be necessary to implement these protection mechanisms for children and young people.


Forum Tau Matan, located in Dili, Timor Leste, is an organisation dedicated to human rights and youth issues in Timor Leste.