In unity our advocacy becomes a chorus - the women working to end violence in Vanuatu

Civil society representatives at a recent workshop in Port Vila, Vanuatu (a group photo).
Civil society representatives at a recent workshop in Port Vila, Vanuatu. (Photo: UNDP)
September 11, 2023

PORT VILA, Vanuatu - What comes to mind when you think of the Pacific? The rhetoric often centres on happiness and holidays, the cordial shout of "Bula" in Fiji, "Welkam" in Vanuatu or "Mālō e lelei" in Tonga.  

But, there is another story that needs to be told: the work of an incredible cohort across the region working to end all forms of violence against women.  

60 per cent of women in the Pacific had experienced physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime.

The Pacific region has some of the highest rates of violence against women in the world, with up to 68 per cent of women having reported experiencing physical or sexual violence by a partner in their lifetime. This figure is more than twice the global average.

Pacific Women Lead’s 2021 National Survey on Women’s Lives and Family Relationships revealed that of the women who have ever had an intimate relationship with a partner in Vanuatu: 

  • 60 per cent had experienced physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime
  • 68 per cent had experienced emotional violence
  • 28 per cent were subjected to several forms of control by their partner
  • 69 per cent experienced at least one form of coercive control, and most of these were continuing to live lives involving physical and sexual violence

Women are at risk of violence and threats, regardless of where they are. Women are not safe on the streets, in their homes, at work, in places of study, places of worship or places of recreation.  

Blue lagoon
Vanuatu is one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world. (Photo: UNDP)

A step in the right direction

The global Spotlight Initiative to eliminate violence against women and girls is a United Nations initiative supported by the European Union and other partners. It focuses on four key pillars:  

  1. Policy and legislation  
  2. Institutions  
  3. Prevention  
  4. Data  

A comprehensive approach is being implemented in the Pacific by targeting multiple settings for change, including the education sector, government, churches, the justice sector, and civil society organizations (CSOs).

UNDP’s support to Vanuatu via the Spotlight Initiative sees it working with small, grassroots organizations and making an impact from the ground up.  

Through its grantee programme, UNDP Pacific has partnered with six grassroots organizations to empower women in rural communities by supporting service provision, innovative solutions and engagement activities to provide information and basic services to those who lack access.  

A market vendor shows off her handicrafts in the market, Port Vila, Vanuatu.
A market vendor shows off her handicrafts in Port Vila, Vanuatu. (Photo: UNDP)

However, for sustainable, long-term progress on ending violence against women, a whole-of-society approach is needed.

“The way we now frame the topic has completely changed, it’s no longer just a women’s problem. While the vast majority of perpetrators are men, if we want to make change, we need to realize that this can only be done via a whole-of-community approach,” said Dr. Astrid Kersten, Executive Director of Human Capacity Development International (HCDI).

“The way we now frame the topic has completely changed, it’s no longer just a women’s problem." - Dr. Astrid Kersten, Human Capacity Development International (HCDI)

HCDI do this by collaborating with village chiefs and younger members of the community alike. 

Spotlight grantees HCDI and their partner organization Sista focused on two key activities:

  1. The development of community resources to assist in community awareness development and collective action, related to reducing gender-based violence
  2. To build on and promote the Stanap Strong website as a resource to support victims, families of victims and the general population.

HCDI and Sista are making in-roads and inspiring change, but Dr. Kersten still has moments of self-doubt.  

“I do keep thinking, ‘is this really making a difference?’ It is still hard going, training and capacity building are still key right across Vanuatu, and we need continued support to help us beyond the Spotlight Initiative.  

“These grants may be small but with our work it doesn’t take a whole lot of money to ensure that we can have significant impact,” she said.  

Two women exchanging smiles.
Jospehine Tarianga (left) of Sista, with Dr. Astrid Kersten of HCDI. (Photo: UNDP)

When you lift up women you lift the entire community  

When the grassroots organization Sista was established in 2016, its main purpose was to create a space for Ni-Vanuatu women to connect, share and uplift each other.  

Sista began as an online magazine and over the past eight years has evolved into a women’s rights organization driven by feminist values.

Josephine Tarianga, 22, serves as Sista’s Resource Coordinator. A former journalist, she is not only working with Sista and Vanuatu’s We Rise Coalition, she is also studying a double degree of Law and Commerce at the University of the South Pacific.

"Women are the focal point for any community. When you lift up women you lift the entire community." - Josephine Tarianga, Sista

“Things are still very male-dominated here, but at the same time change is in the air. Women are the focal point for any community. When you lift up women you lift the entire community, and our work with HCDI is doing just that,” she said.  

Sista’s work in the field of media and communications complements the face-to-face community conversation approach of HCDI. Beyond the community level, Ms. Tarianga hopes to influence policy  and to have media in Vanuatu more accurately tell the story of ni-Vanuatu women.  

“A lot of our work is subconscious, it’s subtle. Many don’t realize, particularly the men we work with, that we are working quite slowly at changing mindsets, one step at a time. We ask people to reflect on who they are now and the type of person they want to be, the type of community it is that they want to be a part of.  

“When you frame things this way, there isn’t a single person that can say that they wouldn’t want to better the lives of all members of their family, their community, and their country,” she said.  

A woman standing and smiling
Helen Bong of ActionAid Vanuatu is another recipient of this grant funding. (Photo: UNDP)

Delivering for people on their own terms  

Ending violence against women and girls is essential to ensuring that all people, regardless of gender, can live in dignity and safety. Without this, we cannot achieve gender equality or realize the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

UNDP and the Spotlight Initiative are working with grassroots organizations in Vanuatu to deliver on the sustainable development agenda at the local level. These organizations are deeply embedded in their communities and are best placed to understand the needs and priorities of local people.  

A 2021 study by the Association for Women’s Rights in Development – a global, feminist movement-support organization – found GBV to be both a public health emergency and human rights violation on a global scale. And yet, approximately 99 per cent of all gender-related international aid does not reach grassroots women’s rights and feminist organizations.

By working with these organizations in Vanuatu, UNDP and Spotlight Initiative are ensuring that the SDGs are delivered for real people on their own terms.

99 per cent of all gender-related international aid does not reach grassroots  and feminist organizations.

ActionAid Vanuatu is using grant funding to support local women to become powerful community leaders, particularly in times of crisis.  

Helen Bong wears multiple hats within ActionAid Vanuatu. She is the group’s Finance Officer, as well as working in community engagement, communications, human resources, and programme implementation.  

Through Spotlight grant funding, ActionAid Vanuatu has conducted research on the relationship between disability, economic pressures and domestic violence – revealing that 64 per cent of disabled women reported their partners regularly demanded money, while almost all participants stated that they experienced domestic violence.

The group has established 10 livelihoods projects in rural communities, with over 130 women participating in a loan scheme to support their work in agriculture and subsistence farming, boosting overall economic resilience. In addition, ActionAid Vanuatu conducted community awareness sessions on gender-based violence, establishing a group of watchdogs: community champions who report on cases of violence in communities. 

These watchdogs also provide information on referral pathways and work at the provincial government level to create strategic plans for ending violence against women and girls.  

Mobilizing these local female community members to form watchdog groups has increased the reporting and recording of violence against women in communities. Community meetings and awareness-raising is used to share information on violence against women and girls, and works to break the taboo associated with speaking out on the issue.

“Working across five islands and within around 20 communities, we are seeing great impact with our work. We are creating a model at the provincial level and believe that this is something that could be rolled out nationally,” Ms. Bong said.  

ActionAid Vanuatu is equipping women and girls with the tools and resources required to build solidarity, sisterhood and strength. The next step is to take this work and align with other grassroots organizations across Vanuatu under an umbrella organization that can advocate on behalf of all women and girls across the country.

“For us, there is definitely the need for one movement, one voice. There are so many organizations here working across Vanuatu to further the women’s movement and to make positive change, but if we create a coordination body and take the recommendations from this to government, we will create the opportunity to move our work forward more quickly,” Ms. Bong said.  

Clear water of the Port Vila Harbour against blue sky.
Port Vila Harbour, Vanuatu. (Photo: UNDP)

Women are speaking out  

In Vanuatu women now have a voice on the floor of parliament for the first time since 2008.  

Gloria Julie King, a mother, businesswoman, and former player and coach of Vanuatu’s national women’s football side, picked up one of the five seats in the constituency of Efate, the country’s main island and home to its capital, Port Vila.

Despite women making up 49 per cent of the population in Vanuatu, their presence in politics remains woefully inadequate.  

“Spotlight Initiative is a powerful tool for transforming the lives of women and girls." - UNDP Pacific Office in Fiji Resident Representative, Munkhtuya Altangerel

This glaring lack of gender diversity not only undermines democratic principles and equitable representation, but also deprives societies of the invaluable perspectives and contributions that women offer to the decision-making process. While women's representation is rapidly increasing worldwide, the Pacific region is lagging.

In an interview with France 24 following her election October of 2023, King said "Do not give up. Women [must] continue to support each other by lifting each other up. It's reassuring to know that women are brave enough to step up."

UNDP Pacific Office in Fiji Resident Representative, Munkhtuya Altangerel, said Spotlight Initiative and UNDP’s work with grassroots organizations was key to transformative and sustainable change.

“Spotlight Initiative is a powerful tool for transforming the lives of women and girls, and UNDP is proud to be a part of this important work in Vanuatu. We cannot achieve our goals without working together, and we are grateful for the partnership of grassroots organizations and with the Government of Vanuatu in the fight for gender equality and sustainable development,” she said.  

The Spotlight Initiative is a critical investment in the future of Vanuatu, a powerful tool for transforming the lives of women and girls. By working together, we can create a country where all women and girls are safe, respected, where women and girls have the opportunity to thrive.

The Spotlight Initiative Regional Programme in the Pacific runs until December 2023. 

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