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Clare Parsons is helping ALFeLa to strengthen its case management system.

An emerging network of legal, health and social services can help Timorese women and children to escape violence and find justice. Australian volunteers are assisting these services to remain sustainable and locally managed.

Violence against women and children was once seen as a family problem, an inevitability of life in Timor-Leste. Little support was available to survivors and none at all to those seeking to leave an abusive relationship. Quietly, inexorably, the situation is changing: the result of new laws, community-run support services and the patient advocacy of Timorese women.

A landmark Law Against Domestic Violence, promulgated in 2010, was the first dedicated piece of legislation to help survivors access justice. In the following three years, 352 cases were brought before the country's four district courts. Yet the legal option still carries significant risks: cases dismissed by police or languishing for years awaiting trial; societal pressures and the lack of an income forcing women to return to an abusive relationship or live in extreme poverty.

Behind the new law is a network of legal aid, advocacy and support services for survivors, run largely by Timorese women for Timorese women. The Australian Volunteers for International Development (AVID) program is helping these services to remain sustainable, locally managed and better connected.

Strengthening local services

Asisténsia Legál ba Feto no Labarik (ALFeLa) is a legal aid service for women and children. Its legal officers support clients from the moment a report is made to the Police Vulnerable Persons Unit, through to the final court decision and beyond. ALFeLa sees clients in all of Timor's 13 districts, adding at least 20 new clients to its caseload each month.

Cases require consistent follow-up to make their way through the formal justice system. AVID volunteer Clare Parsons, a former employment lawyer from Melbourne, has helped ALFeLa to strengthen its case management system by establishing processes for opening and closing cases and creating standardised forms, letters and precedent documents. As legal coordinator Laura Alfonso de Jesus explains, this will significantly improve continuity of service: "If one lawyer hands a case over to another lawyer, it will be easy for them to know where the case is up to, and what are the next steps. It also helps us to ensure that we have the necessary information to support our clients in court."

Survivors of violence can access emergency accommodation, healthcare, counselling and social support through Psychosocial Recovery and Development in East Timor (PRADET). PRADET has a domestic violence program with facilities in four Timorese hospitals. It has also developed a medical forensic protocol to document injuries from sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse, thus providing crucial evidence for prosecuting cases. 

PRADET is now seeking to demonstrate the impact of its work and its viability as an independent Timorese organisation. AVID volunteer Kelly Warner is working with field and head office staff to embed monitoring and evaluation within all program activities. A second volunteer, Kerry Nicholls, is helping PRADET staff to create meaningful financial reports and track budgets and grants.

Women's services outside Dili often operate on a shoestring budget, reliant on local volunteers. In Baucau, Centro Feto Haburas Dozenvolvimentu (CFHD) advocates against gender-based violence and helps survivors rebuild their lives through small financial grants and employment skills training. It's a very personal mission for CFHD staff and volunteers. "We have seen friends who have no dignity and no respect in the community," says founding member Maria Elisa Belo. "We are here to help them and build their capacity, so they can move forward with their lives."

Resources are stretched to their limit, and the cost of transport and fuel make it extremely difficult for CFHD to reach women in remote villages. AVID volunteer Sara Webster is supporting the small team with income-generation activities - from pursuing sponsorship with international church groups to offering cooking classes at the CFHD head office. Her broad-ranging role also includes training in strategic planning, monitoring and data collection.

Bringing services together

Survivors of violence need medical assistance, access to justice, a source of income, counselling and support to move on with their lives. The best way to meet these needs is for specialist service providers to work together. 'Rede Referal' is a network of women's service providers, coordinated in every district by the Timorese Ministry of Social Solidarity. Network partners meet each month, enabling them to refer clients according to their needs - for example, ALFeLa can refer a client to PRADET for psychosocial support or to CFHD for employment training. Partners can identify gaps in referral pathways and work together on complex cases.

The AVID program is now contributing to this network. Clare Parsons is drafting a memorandum of understanding to define roles and responsibilities for partners working with ALFeLa, and two AVID social workers will be soon placed within the Ministry of Social Solidarity in Dili and Maliana, to train government staff in managing domestic violence and child abuse cases.

Working within a local context

With the help of AVID volunteers, Timorese women's services are reporting significant progress: from better case management processes to new sources of funding and greater confidence in planning and monitoring their programs. These outcomes were possible because volunteers invested significant time in understanding the local culture and context, building relationships and learning Tetun to discuss operational issues.

The long-term goal is for Timorese services to function independently without volunteer support. As ALFeLa director Merita Correia says: "We are glad to have more Australian volunteers; we welcome them to help us. However, one day in the future we would like to have no volunteers and stand by ourselves."

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Photo: Australian Red Cross/Conor Ashleigh