Understanding the Roots of Violence Against Women in the Pacific

Ramona Vijeyarasa

Violence against women is a problem worldwide, but violence against women in the Asia-Pacific region is seldom spotlighted. A new study seeks to understand the scope of the problem, and its roots.

Violence against women is undeniably
a global problem. While women in all societies are affected, the violence
experienced by women in the Pacific has generally been given little
attention by the international community. However, a report released
by Australia’s Foreign Aid Agency, AusAID, in late 2008, has put the spotlight
on the steps being taken to address violence against women and girls
in five of Australia’s neighbouring countries: Fiji, Papua New Guinea,
Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and East Timor.

The AusAid study gathered input
from over 700 individuals from government, international organizations
and NGOs. Like elsewhere around the global, the most common forms of
violence against women in the countries studied are physical, psychological,
sexual and economic.  

The AusAID report also discusses the serious consequences
of violence for women’s health and well-being, ranging from fatal
outcomes (such as homicide, suicide and AIDS-related deaths) to non-fatal
outcomes. This includes a range of detrimental affects for women’s
reproductive health such as gynecological problems, unwanted pregnancy,
miscarriage, low birth weight of children and sexual dysfunction. The
report also notes how sexual abuse in childhood and adolescence is also
associated with higher risk of subsequent victimization, early sexual
activity, substance abuse and multiple sexual partners.  

The specific impact of the
different customary practices in these five countries is also analyzed.
Together with underling economic inequality, these practices undermine
the ability of women to protect themselves and seek justice. Where a
bride price is paid, which is common in all the countries studied, except
Fiji, women may worry about having to return the money to the husband’s
family, hindering them from seeking support, protection and redress.
Interestingly, in some communities of Papuan
New Guinean
, where
demanding a bride price was not a traditional custom, the practice has
been newly adopted as a way of demanding cash for young daughters. In
Vanuatu, even the Government’s
policy paper on violence against women

admits that many women consider violence to be a natural part of family
life. When it comes to divorce, the interpretation of customary law
in Vanuatu, tends to leave custody of children to the husband’s family,
despite custody laws specifying that cases should be decided "in the
best interests of the child." This often leaves women unwilling to
risk loss of her children if she separates from her husband.

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This report is not the first
to advocate against stereotyping about the nature of domestic violence
experienced by women in different communities. The Asian and Pacific Islander Institute
on Domestic Violence

tries to highlight the ways in which the specific  experiences
of Asian and Pacific Islander women differ from elsewhere around the
globe. A number of examples are given, including multiple abusers in
the home (mothers-, fathers-, brothers-, sisters-in-law, ex-or new wives,
adult siblings) and  women experiencing "push" factors ("leave
the house, give me a divorce, I can always find another wife," etc.)
more frequently than ‘pull’ factors ("come back to me, I love
you," etc.).

In addition to the influence
of patriarchal cultures, in several of these countries, including Fiji
and the Solomon
, women
have suffered years of sexual violence during ethnic conflicts. The Fiji Women’s Crisis Center also reports that cultural and religious
fundamentalism is on the rise in Fiji and in the Pacific, with many
chiefs reinforcing the traditional role of women as primary caregivers
and homemakers. The Crisis
also raises
concerns that sexual assault and violence against women is condoned,
reporting incidence of violence is discouraged and many religious leaders
counsel women that it is a sin to divorce or separate.

The Crisis Center is not the
only group discussing the pervasive problem of lack of justice. As condemned
in one report published by the Division
on the Advancement of Women, in collaboration with UNICEF
, in Pacific countries, rape of girl
children is often unreported, particularly where perpetrated by a family
member, to avoid shame on the family and the economic devaluing of the
young girl, leave them without help. Traditional customary courts in
Vanuatu and PNG favor

between couples without due concern for women’s rights. Decisions
regarding compensation also tend to favour men. There is in fact a clear
culture of silencing. who are discouraged from speaking up or seeking
help, with reports of covert
or overt
and the lack of sanctions for perpetrators, which increases their impunity
and the ongoing perpetration of violence.

Yet, the picture is not all
gloomy. A range of civil society actors are working to raise awareness
and to carry out women’s empowerment programs, like the Alola Foundation in East Timor. In Papua New Guinea,
a Family
and Sexual Violence Action Committee (FSVAC),

composed of 81 Committee members from Government, the private sectors,
NGOs, churches and donors, has been set up to assist with law reform,
distribute legal literacy materials, develop training and advocacy materials
and run national awareness campaigns, especially during the global 16
Days of Activism to End Violence Against Women. According to one report,
more than 7,000
the Pacific contributed to the almost 4 million signatures collected
globally for the Say no to violence against women campaign.

Domestic violence has so many
causes, the underlying one being gender inequality. We must continue
to advocate for increasing empowerment of women and gender equality.
Such change will necessarily start to address the impact of customary
practices, the silencing of women and the lack of practical, legal and
social protections for women that are perpetuating this violence.

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