Timor-Leste - Child Rights Coalition Asia
After 24 years of foreign occupation, Timor Leste has been struggling to keep itself in the right political path. As it joined a community of nations, it ratified all the fundamental international human rights instruments without reservation, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child and its two Optional Protocols.
The Timor-Leste government is slowly setting up the institutions and infrastructure which are supposed to keep its commitment to its children and youth. In 2009, it established its National Commission for Child Rights. Designed to be guided by children and young people, the Commission is mandated to develop child-friendly mechanisms which promote children’s rights. A Youth Parliament was also organized, resulting to policy recommendations on education, health, employment and recreation.
More importantly, Timor-Leste has been in the process of engendering its Child Code and Juvenile Justice Bill, which is reflective of the Concluding Observation the Committee on the rights of the child and Timor Leste’s general commitment to the CRC. In addition, the need for a national child rights action plan for the protection and promotion of children’s rights, other legislative measures, including a domestic violence law were adopted to address violence against women and violence against children in different contexts.
Though Timor-Leste at this stage enjoys the support of international organizations and aid agencies, the path has been rocky. Timor-Leste was gripped by a violent power struggle in 2006. As the military was torn by factions, with one of them forming a rebel group, thousands of people were once more displaced, houses were destroyed, some infrastructure brought down and some young people were forced to take part in the violence.
Although this episode is over, the country remains volatile given the widespread poverty, including the absence of basic utilities and services. More than half of the population remains in very poor housing condition and have difficulty accessing safe drinking water, and three quarters of the country has not had electricity. Timor-Leste’s average per capita income only stands at USD800.
The unprocessed experience of conflict and poverty has brought enormous challenges to the government and more importantly, to Timor-Leste’s children. Back in 2004, children under five years comprised one-fifth of the country’s population. In a study involving a survey in 336 primary schools in 2008, only 1 per cent of children with disability go to school. There were also more boys than girls with disability attend school.
As of 2008, education was not accessible to all children, who along with young people make up nearly 60 per cent of Timor-Leste’s population. As the Committee on the Rights of the Child noted in its concluding observations, “A large number of children in Timor-Leste between six and 11 years of age were still not enrolled in school, that less than 50 per cent of children reached grade six, and that access to schools remained problematic in some rural areas.” Education is also a driving factor why some parents choose to send their children to orphanages and similar institutions. An UNESCAP report read, “The reasons for sending children to child care institutions are several, but lack of education facilities in the home village seems to be a pervasive factor.”
Poverty is also been attributed as the cause of child prostitution and pornography. As children are also asked to sell pornographic DVDs and photos, they become targets of arrest and detention for the distribution of illegal materials. As of July 2007, 179 cases of sexual violence were recorded, 24 per cent or around 43 cases involved children as victims.
The number of street children is also expected to rise. In 2004, street children were said to be 200 in Dili, spending most of their time peddling goods. While some return home at night, others sleep on the streets. From 2005 to 2007, a non-profit organization, Forum Comunicacoes Joventude (FCJ) alone registered between 250 to 400 street children.
There is also a need for the government to address the psychological trauma which its citizens particularly children have experienced. Some children were actually tortured during the Indonesian occupation. Rehabilitation as well as family reunification is similarly needed for those who took part in the liberation struggle and wish to move on with their lives.
Despite the national scale of the trauma from the war, institutional care is almost absent, which in turn, aggravate situations which expose children to greater vulnerability and possibly prompt them to be in conflict with the law. The 2008 Global Report of the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers stated that even though the liberation army was disbanded and its young members were sent back to their homes and school, there was no comprehensive plan on demobilization. This partly explains the volatile situation of some people who have never been able to process their experience of violence as revolutionaries and children. An NGO Shadow Report also said that, if mental health issues are not addressed, the trauma that children and youth currently experience and have experienced in the past could continue to manifest itself in poor social reintegration and violence in the future.
In the aftermath of the 2006 stand off between the military and rebel forces, about 130 children were charged and their cases constituted about 10 per cent of all criminal cases. This period highlighted the gaps in Timor-Leste juvenile justice system: Public attorneys are not always available to take on these cases, that the suspects are unnecessarily detained, often in a prolonged period. Children are also not separated from adults. The minimum age of criminal responsibility is only 16 years.
A UNESCAP report pointed out that “a review of the social background of the children reveals that many of the children come from large and dysfunctional families. Moreover, an overwhelming majority of the children were out-of-school or have long stopped schooling at the time of their arrest. Clearly, these children have not been given the opportunity to engage in productive activities and develop sound decision-making abilities.”
The road to development, social justice and peace is indeed rocky for Timor-Leste. What is clear though that the young nation’s journey to political maturity ought to begin with genuine investment for the rights and well-being of its children and young people.
Convention on the Rights of the Child
Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict
Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the sale of children child prostitution and child pornography
Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women
Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination
International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families
CRC Initial State Report (CRC/C/TLS/1), 2007
NGO Shadow Report Presented to the Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2007, prepared by Joao Soares Reis Pequinho
Post-Yokohama Mid-Term Review of the East Asia and the Pacific Regional Commitment and Action Plan Against Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CSEC) – Timor Leste Country Report, 2004, prepared by UNESCAP
Timor-Leste: Report on the First National Survey of Disability in Timor-Leste’s Primary Schools, 2007, prepared by Plan International