Faculty of Education, Social Sciences and Law

School of Politics and International Studies

Research Student: Dr Esther Richards

Reproductive rights and the Catholic Church: the influence of the church on women's reproductive self-determination in the context of Timor-Leste

Photo of Dr Esther Richards

The research I am currently engaged in explores the way in which religion influences the struggle for women's rights in Timor-Leste (formerly known as East Timor), focusing on the role of the Catholic Church as one of the country's most powerful political and social actors, and on rights that mediate women's reproductive self-determination.

The Catholic Church has been present in Timor-Leste for over 400 years and has exerted political and social influence throughout that period to differing degrees. During the period of Indonesian occupation, the Church developed a significant role in support of the independence movement, offering physical and spiritual refuge to resistance fighters and to ordinary members of the population fleeing violence at the hands of the Indonesian military. Following independence, the Church has continued to play an important role in the construction of the new nation and to influence people's lives through political and social action.

The women's movement in Timor-Leste is a fledgling yet vibrant contributor to the country's political and social terrain that has focused on improving women's status and material well-being in the face of serious gender inequality. The struggle for women's rights has focused on issues such as gender-based violence, and women's right to economic and political agency.

However, Timorese women also face serious inequities in terms of their health, particularly due to their reproductive role. Reproductive self-determination is an integral part of women’s rights which requires that women are empowered to decide whether and how they choose to bear children and to have the relevant education and access to reproductive health services to allow them to practically make such decisions.

The Catholic Church has opposed notions of reproductive rights in many contexts across the globe, seeking to influence governments on legislation that impacts on such rights, for example in terms of restrictions to safe and legal abortion. This research seeks to investigate the situation in Timor-Leste; how the Church there influences the reproductive health arena and Timorese people's own perceptions and opinions of the Church's influence on issues around reproductive rights, specifically in relation to women's reproductive self-determination.

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