Melbourne Law School - Theses

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    Valuing women in Timor Leste: the need to address domestic violence by reforming customary law approaches while improving state justice
    Graydon, Carolyn Julie ( 2016)
    Domestic violence remains prevalent in Timor Leste and is widely considered a normal part of married life for Timorese women. Many women experience deep conflicts in how to respond to violence occurring within relationships that also offer love and children, and are typically at the centre of women’s social, cultural and economic lives. In this context, many see the option of seeking state help as demanding untenably high risks for uncertain overall gain, and fear it will ultimately entail even greater suffering for them and their children. While women who do seek help overwhelmingly turn to customary law systems, these operate within a patriarchal cultural framework that also produces and maintains wider community values of tolerance towards domestic violence. Within these processes, women often find themselves disempowered and dissatisfied with the outcomes they achieve, as they typically fail to recognise and address the violence or deter further abuse, resulting in human rights violations. Drawing on socio-legal tools of analysis, and through 110 detailed interviews with women who have experienced domestic violence and actors involved in customary law systems, this study argues that, despite their serious flaws, there is an urgent need for investment in reform of customary law systems to create an expanded menu of more effective options for women, to tackle the problem of domestic violence in Timor Leste. Using a feminist human rights analysis and critical anthropological theories of legal pluralism and cultural change, this study shows how a progressive realisation approach to reforming customary law norms and procedures by empowering women within customary processes and building on their protective aspects is not only justifiable, but also necessary and viable to better protect women’s rights and to discredit and change dominant attitudes towards domestic violence. While there is no standard script for addressing domestic violence or other manifestations of gender inequality in customary law systems, this research highlights conditions in contemporary Timor Leste and qualities of Timorese customary law systems that provide rich openings for creative reframing and reform of aspects of customary law practice. Expanding legal reform efforts to encompass both customary and state justice systems, while seeking to productively exploit the dynamics between them, provides the best prospects for protecting women and respecting their choices, while sustainably reducing the societal prevalence of spousal violence. This could create a model for change that might also contribute to broader efforts toward gender equality in Timor Leste. The field research undertaken provides a unique and powerful insight into victims’ varied perspectives on what they hope to achieve through interventions into violence, and a nuanced exploration of how customary law authorities see their roles and the potential of customary law systems to help reduce the incidence of domestic violence in Timor Leste. By combining academic analysis with primary field research covering two groups of informants whose views are often overlooked in the literature, this study makes an innovative and original contribution to the legal discourse around strategies for advancing gender equality and women’s rights in plural legal environments, and may have broader relevance in other contexts where women face similar challenges.