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22 March 2009

East Timor Abortion laws in spotlight

DILI, 18 March 2009 (IRIN) - A call for more lenient abortion legislation in this predominantly Catholic country is renewing friction between the Church and pro-abortion activists.

A working group convened by Fokupers (“Communication Forum for Women from the East”), a local NGO supported by others such as the Alola Foundation, has been pushing for a softening of abortion laws.

The issue was highlighted in Dili, the capital, at the second international Women for Peace Conference from 4 to 6 March.

Maria Barreto, programme manager for advocacy at Fokupers, told attendees that abortion should be decriminalised in certain situations.

“Abortion is one of the options that is appropriate when the mothers are victims of sexual violence. We are working to protect women. We should understand that we should give options to mothers based on their circumstances,” Barreto told IRIN.

Abortion is criminalised under a penal code dating back to the Indonesian occupation of 1975-1999. Fokupers is one of several NGOs pushing for the government to relax the law.

However, in early March, the Dili and Baucau diocese wrote to the Timor-Leste Council of Ministers, the political executive with the power to pass laws, requesting that abortion remain criminalised in all instances.

The council later discussed a new penal code, including the proposal to soften the law on abortion. A decision has yet to be made.

At the end of the conference, one of the recommendations put forward by the panel was that the new code should include three circumstances under which abortion is permissible: cases of incest, sexual abuse and if the mother or baby’s life is at risk.

However, the move is fiercely opposed by the Catholic Church. About 95 percent of Timor-Leste’s 1.1-million population are Catholic.

Sister Guilhermina Marçal of the Canossian Sisters Order in Dili told IRIN the solution should come from tackling fundamental problems, such as poverty, post-conflict trauma and unemployment. “Education is very important to transform people’s minds and moral values. We have a programme for visiting families and we hold gatherings of the youth members,” she said.

Illegal abortions

Barreto told the conference that incest occurred frequently in remote areas. Often parents and children slept in the same room, leaving little privacy and sometimes leading to sexual abuse and unwanted pregnancy.

In February, Charles Darwin University researcher Suzanne Belton conducted a study on unwanted pregnancy in Timor-Leste, concluding that the law was highly restrictive and that back-street abortions were common.

Indeed, conference coordinator Filomena Barros Dos Reis said: “There is a lot of gender-based violence in Timor-Leste. Domestic violence and incest are not openly discussed as in other countries. There are unwanted pregnancies as a result of sexual assaults.”

Susan Kendall, international mentor for Psychosocial Recovery and Development East Timor (PRADET), a local NGO, told IRIN, “Children are much more likely to be sexually assaulted by someone they know. Part of the problem is the shame that’s put on the parents. Sexual assault is not talked about.”

At the conference, Kendall said about one-third of the cases of domestic violence the group encountered were alcohol-related. The NGO has been running workshops to raise awareness of the dangers of alcohol abuse to reduce the incidents of domestic violence and sexual assault. mc/bj/ds/mw

Image added by ETLJB: The Motael Catholic Church in Dili, East Timor.

East Timor Law Jounal - Towards the rule of law in Timor-Leste!

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