On the face of it, Timor-Leste has done well to escape the COVID-19 pandemic. There have been only 28 positive cases so far, all from outside the country, with no community transmission detected. Everyone affected has recovered while in isolation, and no one has died.
Behind these figures, however, lie harsher realities. Some communities have been hit hard by government measures to tackle the pandemic.
So-called community safe houses have reported a sharp increase in the number of people – most of them women – looking for shelter and support during the country’s state of emergency.
In May, when the population was under strict movement restrictions, Teresa (not her real name) and her family were confined to their home. During this time her husband was violent towards her. This prompted Teresa to seek refuge at a safe house run by local NGO Luta ba Futuru (which means “fight for the future”).
Many Timorese women have had a similar experience to Teresa’s, living in households where decisions are made solely by men. With multiple families living in small spaces, domestic violence has become markedly more frequent and more severe during lockdown – so much so that existing safe houses cannot cope with the growing number of women suffering abuse from their partners.
The Luta ba Futuru safe house that supports Teresa is one of eight funded from a €1.2 million EU-funded COVID-19 response programme in Timor-Leste, implemented with international NGOs and local partners. Active in eight of Timor-Leste’s twelve municipalities, the programme also supports other bodies providing community services during COVID-19, plus the hardest-hit families. “Gender-based violence referral cards” are provided to communities to spread information on Luta ba Futuru’s services. “Dignity kits” are distributed to displaced people seeking temporary accommodation away from home and lacking everyday necessities. Supplies of personal protective equipment mean that organisations can keep people safe from COVID-19. And for vulnerable families in remote areas, food packages, handwashing facilities and water system upgrades at health and community centres mean better health and well-being.
“The measures to prevent the pandemic have affected older people like me,” says Aurelia Mendez, who lives in Madabeno village. “There is no public transport to take me to the market. Basic supplies are dearer and I cannot afford to buy soap. But thanks to the European Union I now have cooking oil and rice to help me live adequately for a month.”
The pandemic’s economic impact in Timor-Leste has been considerable, with agriculture one of the worst affected sectors. That is why the COVID-19 response programme is also helping farmers grow and store their products. To guarantee food security, local vendors receive support to purchase produce directly from farmers, strengthening ties between farmers and markets.
“Team Europe is proud to support this programme,” said Andrew Jacobs, EU Ambassador to Timor-Leste. “It targets the poorest families, providing economic support and delivering health services to vulnerable people, including people with disabilities and women who need access to services for survivors of violence.”