Vanuatu Justice System Failing Women

Report on Vanuatu the first step for UN Women in its examination of the application of law in the Pacific

By Daniela Maoate-Cox

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (Radio New Zealand International, August 05, 2016) – A woman walks through the door with a baby. She's unmarried and wants the father of her child to help pay for its upbringing but he won't.

To take him to court she needs 1000 vatu - about nine U.S. dollars -  but she doesn't have that kind of money and if she can't find it then her case won't be heard.

"It used to be 3000 vatu," said the Vanuatu Women's Centre co-ordinator Merilyn Tahi.

"We are saying abolish those court fees because already that lady or that woman doesn't have that money and if the court will not get her application because she can't pay, then she loses out."

Nearly 23,000 Vanuatu women in the 2009 census said they have been subjected to violence but between 2012 and 2014 police laid only 380 charges - less than two percent.

In its report Women and Children's Access to the Formal Justice System in VanuatuUN Women examined the Police, court, and legal services to see if proper support is offered to women and children who are victims of crime.

It's the first of 14 reports to be done on Pacific countries and found the Vanuatu justice system is failing women.

This month Vanuatu celebrated 36 years of Independence boasting it is one of the happiest countries in the world but Ms Tahi said she struggles to share that sentiment.

Every day she meets women who have been beaten by their partner or want help to take legal action for child support.

Ms Tahi has been with the Vanuatu Women's Centre since it opened in 1992 and said progress has been made to develop the status of women in Vanuatu but it is not good enough yet.

"There's a high percentage of women that go through violence against women and children every day in this country so we cannot be smiling to say that we are the happiest country in the world."

Statistics from 2009 show 60 percent of women in a relationship experienced physical or sexual violence by their husband or partner with 44 percent suffering from one or both of these forms of violence in the past year.

It's tough for women to get help.

"It is an issue that we have identified during our process with cases, that when women come, you cannot finish her case if she cannot access the courts and access justice for herself or the child," Ms Tahi said.

According to The Vanuatu Hardship and Poverty Report, the weekly per capita adult expenditure for the poorest 30% of the population was just under 2000 vatu ($US18), dropping to 1700 vatu ($US15) in Luganville, and 1800 vatu in rural areas or about 16 US dollars.

Filing a civil case in the Island Court would consume over half of the weekly per capita expenditure of an adult whose income was in the lowest three deciles, a Magistrates' Court case would consume over four times and a Supreme Court case more than ten times.

The director of Law and Development Partners and lead researcher on the report, Cate Sumner, said access to the justice system was one of the main barriers facing women.

"Seventy-five percent of Vanuatu's population is in rural areas, a minute amount of violence cases, eight percent of violence cases were decided in Magistrates' court in rural areas, so essentially if you're a woman or child in a rural area you face really grave difficulties in bringing your case to the formal justice system"

Among its 51 recommendations the report said the government should consider removing court fees for all family law applications and make a clear policy for waiving fees for those in financial hardship.

Medical fees for women or children have experienced sexual or physical violence should also be waived.

It also said the lack of adequate and available budget for the Vanuatu Police Force limited its ability to investigate, arrest, summon, serve and enforce orders in cases of violence against women and children.

"They do not have the money to put the petrol in their car to actually pursue these cases," Ms Sumner said, adding that Vanuatu leaders are an important part of any effort to solve these issues.

The UN women representative in the Pacific, Aleta Miller, said the research is focused on Vanuatu legislation to improve access to justice but it's not the only Pacific country that needs work.

"Sixty to 70 percent in many Pacific countries of women, experience physical or sexual violence in their relationships with their husbands or partners, these are shocking statistics."

In 2011 a global report on 57 countries was commissioned by UN Women and found poor rates of crimes against women being reported and being taken through the court system.

The report on Vanuatu is the first step for UN Women in its examination of the application of law in the Pacific and how it can be improved to help women access justice.

"So looking at her (Merilyn's) experience and how do we increase the coverage of what they're doing?" she said. "They're doing very well but why aren't more people able to go through this system, more women, more children?"

Ms Miller said UN Women follows up on its recommendations through a range of avenues like helping governments with The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) reporting,  and the Convention of the Rights of the Child.

"We can't just produce a report, the results are quite startling and then sit, and we have no intention of doing that."

UN Women is partnering with organisations in Fiji to produce similar research Ms Miller said.

Radio New Zealand International
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