Victim-blaming perpetuates violence against women in Timor-Leste

[Photo taken by Xian Warner for The Asia Foundation]

Written by Xian Warner

A few months ago, while I was finishing up my morning bike ride before work, a guy in a black and red hoodie on a motorbike came up behind me, reached around, and grabbed my breast, then sped off down the road. It was 7:30 am and this was a bustling (by Dili standards) street at peak hour. No one said anything. No one did anything. I, myself, was in too much shock to yell. I tried to pedal as fast as I could to catch up to him but my bicycle was no match for his motorbike.

As the #MeToo movement clearly illustrates, my experience was hardly unique and I was grateful that it hadn’t been a more violent assault. But I still felt dirty and angry. As I got ready for work and began processing the experience, however, I realized that anger alone wasn’t going to get me very far. When I reached the office, I spoke to my colleagues about what had happened and we brainstormed ideas about positive actions that we could take to help in addressing street harassment and the prevalence of violence against women and children in Timor-Leste.

One idea was to develop a series of public service announcement (PSA) videos as part of the global 16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence in November and December. We knew that we wanted to design messages that were short and simple, positive rather than stigmatizing, would make people feel proud and empowered rather than ashamed, would not depict any violence, and with characters who were relatable, ordinary people. We did some background research into other PSAs on violence against women from around the world but discovered that most of the examples used punitive messaging, depicted violence or graphic injuries from violence, or used communications techniques such as sarcasm or symbolism that would be unfamiliar to the majority of Timorese viewers.

According to The Asia Foundation’s Nabilan Baseline Study on Violence against Women and Children in Timor-Leste, 80 percent of Timorese women and over 70 percent of male respondents agreed with at least one justification for a man to use violence against his wife, and over 40 percent of male respondents said that a woman is usually to blame for being raped for putting herself in that situation.

These victim-blaming attitudes frequently come up in the gender equity and violence prevention workshops that The Asia Foundation’s Nabilan Program and our partners facilitate with organisations and communities around the country. For example, when we use case studies of sexual harassment or domestic violence in these workshops, more than a few participants usually respond with, “Maibe feto mak provoka mane atu halo violénsia ne’e!” (“But the woman provoked the man to use violence!”). This attitude shifts the responsibility away from the perpetrator while, at the same time, depicting men as completely unable to control their emotions. We also hear similar justifications for child abuse, in a context where more than three out of four women and men experienced physical and/or sexual abuse during childhood.

With this in mind, we met with the founding members of the Grupu Feminista iha Timor (Feminists in Timor Group), a nascent and increasingly strong independent feminist movement in Timor-Leste, and came up with a concept that centered around the issue of victim-blaming. We did not want viewers to feel under attack, so we designed an approach that recognizes emotions – such as anger, sexual attraction, or frustration – as completely natural, but  that it is up to us how we manage our responses to  these emotions. We refined the scripts and, then, the draft films, with feedback from our colleagues, local partner organisations, and the Grupu Feminista. To encourage people, and especially youth, to share the films, a local band, Família Alcatraz, let us use their extremely popular (and gender-equitable) love song, Princesa, in each of the films. We then approached a local television station to screen the films at prime time every night during the 16 Days, before the 7:30 pm news, in addition to us releasing the films on The Asia Foundation in Timor-Leste’s Facebook page. We also made radio versions of each of the storylines, which are now being broadcast across the country.

As anyone who has ever created a PSA will know, it’s a challenge to fit a lot of nuance into a one-and-a-half-minute film. But we see this as a step in the right direction in terms of evidence-based, context-specific and positive messaging for violence prevention in Timor-Leste, and we hope that these films help to start more of a critical conversation about victim-blaming and responsibility.

To date, the films have received over 70,000 views on Facebook alone and I can only hope that one of those views was the guy in a black and red hoodie.


Click on the links below to watch the films and take a moment to think, which way will you choose?

Child abuse (English subtitles):

Child abuse (Tetun subtitles):


Domestic violence (English subtitles):

Domestic violence (Tetun subtitles):


Sexual harassment (English subtitles):

Sexual harassment (Tetun subtitles):

The Nabilan Program in Timor-Leste is generously funded by the Australian Government. The Government of New Zealand also contributed to the costs for distributing these films.

For more information about the Nabilan Program or these films, please contact Todd Wassel, Country Representative for The Asia Foundation in Timor-Leste:


Xian Warner is former Prevention Coordinator for The Asia Foundation’s Nabilan Program. 

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