The Pacific Islands may be well-known as an idyllic tourist destination, but gendered violence remains a chronic issue for Island women. AAP/Diana Plater via the Conversation
Since 2013, I have worked with women’s groups in the Pacific Islands countries of Fiji, Bougainville (in PNG), New Caledonia, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, to reflect on women’s right to physical security, and ask what that principle looks like in our Pacific region. My research has had two aims; first to understand how the right to safety is institutionalised and reforms are implemented in each country, and second, to examine how the right to safety is understood by women in an everyday sense.
To give some context, it is important to consider the global origins of women’s right to live in security from violence. In 1993, the United Nations General Assembly formally recognised violence against women to be a violation of women’s human rights. In doing so, the issue of women’s vulnerability was no longer considered a source of personal shame and stigma. Rather, it was given full recognition as a global challenge, and states were asked to do more to support their female populations who experienced this violence, as well as to work towards its elimination.
Since 1993, Pacific Island countries, including the larger island countries of Australia and New Zealand have all responded to this shift in global policy making on violence against women. We have come a long way from the days of 1995 when one Pacific leader jested amongst his male peers at the Pacific Islands Forum meeting, that Pacific men used the idle hours of the “Sunday Sabbath” to kick “either a football or one’s wife around”.
Nearly twenty years later, the Pacific Island Forum leaders meeting in 2012 was, by contrast are more sympathetic event. Here the regions leaders made a powerful commitment to tackle gender inequality in their countries and also to do more to challenge violence against women. In the years since, we have seen Pacific Island governments recognise their responsibilities towards women and establish reforms that aim to eliminate violence against women.
In PNG, Vanuatu and Solomon Islands we have seen new family law legislation and new domestic violence legislation with more protections for women and harsher penalties enacted for those who perpetrate violence. In Solomon Islands, additionally, the government has established a National Policy to Eliminate Violence Against Women and Girls in 2016 which integrates government and civil society programs to assist those exposed to violence.
In Fiji, we have seen new policing policy which stipulates a “zero tolerance approach” and “no drop” directing all officers to investigate cases of violence against women brought to their attention, even if women later try to withdraw the complaint. In New Caledonia there have been state and civil society initiatives such as the establishment of shelters and women’s bureaus who offer assistance to women who have been exposed to violence.
All of these reforms show state and civil society commitment to the objective of eliminating gender violence. But what is their concrete effectiveness? Do they mean women experience less violence in their daily lives? This is always a hard question to answer ask because we also know that when there is more public debate about violence against women, and more effort to improve state authorities’ responses to this issue, more women who might not have reported abuse decide to come forward to demand assistance.
But given that we are now 16 years on from that landmark international policy shift of 1993, and 7 years on from the Pacific Islands Forum declaration recognising women’s insecurity as an issue of regional concern, we might also expect to see the beginning of a decline in numbers of women being exposed to this violence. Sadly, this is far from evident, and in many countries around the region we see violence against women perpetrated at significant rates consistent, or even higher than, those of 20 years ago.
So my research has really sought to understand why. My findings indicate to me that while state reform is important, implementation remains a challenge.
Part of the problem lies in the difficulties that women continue to face in trying to progress charges against violent family members through the criminal justice system. In Solomon Islands, for example, between the establishment of the Family Safety bill in 2014 and 2018, there were only 18 people convicted of family violence offences and only one person had received a custodial sentence.
There are many dedicated police officers that are sympathetic towards women who bring complaints of violence to their attention. But there are also many others who continue to treat this issue as of minimal importance in general law and order work. Through my research in the Pacific Islands region, I have amassed too many stories which show that even when official policing policy states that women’s complaints of violence must be investigated, individual police officers frequently dissuade women from pressing charges against family members and instead encourage them to return home and reconcile with their husbands.
The scope of policing authority in many Pacific Island countries is also usually quite limited too and this can have an impact on women’s safety. For example, when I began research on violence against women in Fiji in 2013, as the government was implementing the aforementioned “Zero Tolerance” policy on violence against women. This involved a community policing approach and cooperation from local community leaders. Many people around the country praised this program and urged me to study it. The fact that it sought to complement policing responses with the input and authority of community leaders seemed promising.
Yet, when I went to rural villages, or squatter settlements around the main cities in Fiji to find out more, I encountered less enthusiasm. Women in these places made statements such as “men have no idea what we go through” or “our experiences are just our own”. This suggested that even this program with its zero tolerance message, and degree of community-level cooperation was struggling to make an impact. The testimonies of the women I spoke to in this context, suggested to me that that government programs must do more than show success in a few well-publicised locations if women’s rights to security are to be upheld generally.
The question of what women might want in terms of state support when they are exposed to violence is interesting too, and suggests the ‘punish and protect’ model of policing may itself not be a solution that those exposed to violence always seek. My work in Vanuatu with Melissa Bull has yielded particularly interesting results on this question. It has shown that where police do have the capacity to intervene, women simply want officers to bring about a halt in household or family violence so that order is re-established and do not expect or want their partners subjected to punishment. Women here also explained that police can play an important role in educating perpetrators that their violent actions are against law and human rights.
So what can we take away from all of this? Certainly, we have come a long way in the Pacific region from the days when it was thought appropriate for Pacific leaders to make jokes about women’s vulnerability to violence and show little regard to questions of women’s safety. Today, many Pacific Island states take this challenge seriously and have enacted legal, policing and welfare reforms to uphold women’s rights to security, and make that an issue of state responsibility. But more work needs to be done to ensure that these commitments are more than just words. The design of reform is the first step.
Meaningful implementation in ways that provide women with valuable aid, support and protection from violence, is a second but far more challenging part of the process. This will be vital if we are committed to challenging the scenario where women’s rights to security are respected and we find it unacceptable that women’s stories of violence should remain “simply their own”.
Nicole George is Associate Professor at the University of Queensland. Her research focuses on the gendered politics of conflict and peacebuilding, violence, security and participation. Since the early 2000s, she has conducted research in the Pacific Islands region focusing on gender politics, gendered security and post conflict transition in Fiji, New Caledonia, Bougainville and Solomon Islands, working in collaboration with women’s organisations, women decision-makers and women policymakers in these settings.