Rape and Domestic Violence: Although rape is a crime, with a maximum penalty of life imprisonment, spousal rape is not cited specifically in the law, and police frequently were reluctant to intervene in what were considered domestic matters.
Violence against women, particularly domestic violence, was common, although no accurate statistics existed. Police reported an increase in the number of cases of violence against women, but most, including rape, went unreported because women were ignorant of their rights or feared further abuse, particularly in rural areas.
The Family Protection Act covers domestic violence, women’s rights, children’s rights, and family rights. Violators could face prison terms of up to five years, a fine of up to 100,000 vatu ($1,095), or both. During the year, the Family Protection Unit at police headquarters in Port Vila issued 302 protection orders. A protection order does not require proof of injury; as long as there is a threat of violence, police can issue an order.
There were no government programs to address domestic violence, and media attention to the abuse was limited. As part of the New Zealand government’s regional Pacific Prevention of Domestic Violence Program, Radio Vanuatu had a bimonthly program for police to raise awareness and discuss issues relating to domestic violence. The Department of Women’s Affairs played a role in the process for implementing the Family Protection Act. The Police Academy provided training in the handling of domestic violence and sexual assault cases. Police have a “no drop” policy under which they do not drop reported domestic violence cases; if the woman later wishes to withdraw her complaint, she must go to court to request that it be dropped.
Churches and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operated facilities for abused women. NGOs also played an important role in educating the public about domestic violence, but they did not have sufficient funding to implement their programs fully.
Sexual Harassment: Sexual harassment is not illegal and was a problem.
Reproductive Rights: According to the country’s family planning policy guidelines, couples and individuals have the right to decide freely the number, spacing, and timing of their children. This right was generally upheld in practice. According to the national reproductive health coordinator, the Ministry of Health provides training on and works to raise awareness of human rights and gender equity with regard to reproductive health services and behavior. The country is predominantly a patriarchal society, and sometimes decisions on family planning and contraceptive use were made by the man in the relationship without taking the woman’s views into consideration. According to country indicators published by the Population Reference Bureau, an estimated 38 percent of married women ages 15-49 used some form of contraception, with 37 percent using modern contraceptive methods. The ministry cooperated with the Department of Labor on the Male Involvement in Reproductive Health Project, which worked to sensitize men in the workforce to reproductive health issues. A regional adolescent health and development program funded by the UN Population Fund worked with schools to strengthen school-based clinics and incorporate counseling and services.
The country’s geographic layout in relation to service delivery points, both between islands and inland, sometimes made it difficult to obtain access to contraception; essential prenatal, obstetric, and postpartum care; and treatment of sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. Obstacles included lack of adequate roads and the high cost of transport to reach health-care facilities.
Discrimination: While women have equal rights under the law, they were only slowly emerging from a traditional culture characterized by male dominance, a general reluctance to educate women, and a widespread belief that women should devote themselves primarily to childbearing. The majority of women entered into marriage through “bride-price payment,” a practice that encouraged men to view women as property. Although the law does not prohibit women from owning or inheriting land, in practice tradition generally barred women from land ownership. Many female leaders viewed village chiefs as major obstacles to social, political, and economic rights for women.
In practice women experienced discrimination in access to employment, credit, and pay equity for substantially similar work. The Employment Act prohibits women from working in certain sectors of the economy at night. Vanuatu Transparency Limited and the South Pacific Commission, through a program of the Pacific Regional Rights Resource Team, worked to increase awareness of women’s legal rights. The government, with the assistance of the UN Development Program, ran the Vanuatu Women’s Development Scheme (VANWODS). VANWODS provided poor and disadvantaged women with microloans to start income-producing activities, with the goal of making these activities progressively more self-financing. Women interested in running for public office received encouragement from the Vanuatu Council of Women and the Department of Women’s Affairs, which also offered training programs and funding.