For Police Sub-inspectors Maria Fatima Martins and Daria Ximenes, finding a temporary shelter for victims and witnesses of domestic and sexual gender-based violence is part of their job. It is their way of dealing with the pressing need to shelter the victims and witnesses of homicide and sexual violence in the country. Their latest charge is trying to find temporary shelters for two minors whose parents were murdered in a homicide case.
With more than twenty years of police service between them, they have been specially chosen to be part of the National Vulnerable People's Unit, or NVPU, a special section of the force to investigate cases of sexual assault, rape, child abuse, missing persons, human trafficking and crimes against the mentally impaired.
They were among the female police officers of Timor-Leste and the United Nations honoured by the Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General to Timor-Leste, Takahisa Kawakami as part of the 2009 International Women's Day on Monday, 16 March. "Your dedication, I assure, does not go unnoticed," said Mr. Kawakami.
The occasion also kicked off a consultation workshop between the national police and the different stakeholders from the community. Supported by UNIFEM, the session brought together the heads of sucos or villages, civil society members and survivors of genderbased violence in an effort to inform and improve the services of the law enforcement team.
Representing UNIFEM at the workshop, Vicenta Correia, the National Coordinator of Sexual and Gender-Based Violence Programme, said that tradition, ignorance of the law and of human rights as well as the economic dependence of women, make them vulnerable to sexual and gender-based violence.
There needs to be an understanding of what gender-based violence is and an emphasis given on the protection of both for the victims as well as witnesses," she commented. At other times, even if cases of gender-based violence have been reported to the police, victims often request for the matter to be withdrawn."
According to the United Nations Police, there are on average three cases of domestic violence reported to the police every day in Dili alone. Estimates indicate that for every domestic violence case reported to the police, ten go unreported.
The government of Timor-Leste is determined to end violence against women and girls. Patriarchal belief of women's role in Timorese society, religion and preconceived notions of sexuality make the subject almost taboo. Lack of confidentiality by the national police when handling the cases also posed problems for the victims according to the activists who attended the workshop.
In acknowledging the challenges, Mr. Kawakami concurred with the recommendations made by the participants of the workshop - that the NVPU's commitment should not be hindered by lack of training or understanding of the seriousness of genderbased violence. Logistical challenges often hamper response of the police. With this, he urged all to be prepared to properly implement and enforce the new Penal Code and the anticipated Domestic Violence Law when they are passed.
Female police officers now make up more than eighteen percent of the PNTL. "Improving gender balance will ensure greater access by women to the police and law enforcement agencies," he said.