Spotlight Initiative in Timor-Leste responds to the social impacts of Covid-19 lockdown

Being stuck at home is a stressful experience for most, but for those experiencing gender-based and sexual violence (GBV) it can be life-threatening.

Globally, it has been recognised that the social measures necessary to combat Covid-19 have the potential to worsen violence against women. In Timor-Leste, the Spotlight Initiative, launched in early March, has diverted $1 million dollars to respond to this challenge.

As a Spotlight implementing partner, UNDP Timor-Leste will work with the Timorese National Police (PNTL) to support the communications and outreach efforts of the Vulnerable Persons Unit (VPU) and deliver key messages around zero-tolerance for gender-based violence. As frontline workers, the PNTL face increased demand for Covid-19 responses as well as their normal tasks.  PNTL communications


Bernie McEvoy, a volunteer with Juventude ba Dezenvolvimentu Nasional (JDN) who participated in the UNDP’s 2019 16 Days of Action Against Gender Based Violence, says that despite relatively good legal foundations, awareness of the illegality of GBV is very low among the male and female youth she works with.

Under Timor-Leste law, the PNTL are required to investigate all instances of suspected gender-based violence, even if the survivor withdraws their case.

“Most young women we spoke to said ‘I don’t like being treated this way but I didn’t think it was illegal or that there was anything we could do to change it,’” McEvoy said.

JDN has identified public transport as posing a major risk of GBV for Timorese women and girls. Timor-Leste’s lack of safe public transport, especially at night means women and girls are impeded from accessing work that requires travel at night, such as hospitality. This led JDN to create and circulate a petition for a code of conduct for Taxi and Microlet (minivan) drivers, which gained the support of the GMPTL – the group of female parliamentarians in Timor-Leste shortly before the shutdown. Like many organisations they are now unable to conduct face to face educational workshops and are learning how to expand their digital communications capacities.  JDN includes a self-organised executive of 11 young women who self-organised a sexual harassment executive. They attest to the impact of awareness raising in combatting GBV in Timor-Leste.

Spotlight Initiative supporting women in Timor-Leste to produce Covid-19 PPE

Ines Da Costa, a member of the sexual harassment executive at JDN said “many people still think [sexual harassment] is normal whereas they do not know it is part of the violence. “I learnt from [JDN’s workshops] how to protect myself and to respond in good way to the people that harassed me,” she added.  

“Once you provide people with the opportunity to think about what’s going on then they can develop their own sense of power about what to do,” said McEvoy.


To further improve public awareness about the Spotlight Initiative and the importance of eliminating violence against women and girls, the UNDP is also planning to support crucial services such as journalism, the legal sector and counselling agencies. This will include working with the Timor-Leste Journalism Association (AJTL) and Press Council to improve reporting on gender equality and GBV. The President of the AJTL, and a well-known advocate of gender equality Zevonia Vieira, said that “gender bias in the media should be challenged and said gender-sensitive language training for journalists would be a major focus of her term.”

Despite the global shutdown in response to Covid-19, action against GBV is one of the highest priorities for action in Timor-Leste, with $15 million devoted to the Spotlight Initiative. As crisis mentalities and necessities change global priorities, all Spotlight partners are determined to not let the importance of ending violence against women drop off the agenda.

Written by
Yuichi Ishida
Communications Analyst
UN entities involved in this initiative
International Labor Organization
UN Women
United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women
United Nations Development Programme
United Nations Population Fund
United Nations Children’s Fund