(NEW YORK – C-FAM) As pre-session working groups of the committee charged with overseeing compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) meet in advance of the committee's July session, the small Asian nation of East Timor has come under pressure for its continued criminalization of abortion. East Timor’s new penal code, which will take effect early next month, continues to penalize the practice, including abortion in cases of rape or incest, but with the added proviso that exceptions can be made in cases where the mother’s health is in jeopardy.
As East Timor, or Timor-Leste, states in its report to the Committee, "Abortion is still an extremely sensitive issue in Timor-Leste, especially given the traumatic events of recent years." The report goes on to explain some Timorese cultural practices which impact "reproductive health." Contraception is generally unpopular in the predominantly Catholic state, with both men and women seeing it as fueling promiscuity and sexually-transmitted diseases while decreasing the number of children.
A newly independent nation as of 2002, East Timor claims that it is still recovering from 24 years of Indonesian occupation, during which time the Indonesia allegedly imposed family planning programs that were widely resented by the Timorese population. Both men and women remain sensitive to suggestions of limiting family size and to abortion.
Despite general support in Timor for the continued criminalization of abortion, a number of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), such as the Alola Foundation and Rede Feto, have been agitating for reconsideration the legal status of abortion. The Alola Foundation has received support from certain United Nations agencies, namely the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF). Though CEDAW is silent as to abortion, CEDAW committee members have also pushed it under the guise of promoting "gender equality."
East Timor notes that NGOs promoting gender equality are often seen as "meddling" and many Timorese (including women) feel that gender distinctions are important in protecting the integrity of the family, a valued institution in Timor, and that loss of these distinctions could be harmful to women. According to the report, many Timorese also express satisfaction with adat, their native system of justice, despite its failure to treat women as equal to men. Adat represents part of the Timorese adherence to deep-rooted traditions. "Foreign laws" are seen as irrelevant to tradition and therefore ineffective.
Timor’s repeated references to its long-standing customs, its distrust of foreign influence and its discussion of "reproductive rights" abuses suffered by Timorese women during Indonesia’s rule appear to have been met with opposition or indifference from the CEDAW committee. The committee has called upon the Timorese to engage in "modification of customs and practices" it regards as "discriminatory." It also is demanding clarification on how certain CEDAW provisions have been implemented in court cases.
The 44th session of CEDAW will be held in New York from July 20 to August 7. Japan and Tuvalu are also among the eleven nations up for CEDAW review in July.