Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape, including spousal rape, and establishes penalties of up to 25 years’ imprisonment for first-degree sexual assault. Police sometimes respond to rape and domestic assault cases. A domestic violence unit of the police is active in prosecutions and community outreach. The government prosecutes rape cases. Many observers, however, believed reporting and prosecution of sexual offenses was low, since cultural constraints discouraged victims from reporting such crimes. A lack of tools and capacity for evidence gathering also hindered prosecutors. There are court rules to protect women during testimony regarding rape charges.
The law seeks to stigmatize domestic violence; ensure investigation, prosecution, and punishment for perpetrators; and provide support for survivors. Relevant law was used only sporadically, and awareness of it was low outside Majuro. The law also requires certain professionals to report suspected domestic violence.
A 2015 UN Population Fund study stated that seven out of 10 women have experienced physical or sexual violence in their lifetime. The study also concluded that 91 percent of women who experienced domestic violence at the hands of their partner or spouse did not report it due to fear of repercussion or belief that the abuse was justified.
A 2016 study by the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Women United Together in the Marshall Islands (WUTMI) reported that the prevalence of domestic violence was directly related to patriarchal societal norms that place women in a subordinate cultural role. According to the study, most Marshallese believed that men were justified in using violence against women in many situations. The study also noted resistance to women’s empowerment and domestic violence prevention in the religious and tribal chief leadership, which see in these activities an erosion of Marshallese culture.
The government’s health office provided limited counseling services in reported spousal and child abuse cases. NGOs increased efforts to raise awareness of domestic violence through marches and information sessions. Women’s groups under the umbrella of WUTMI continued to publicize women’s issues and rights. During the year, WUTMI began offering “‘Weto in Mour’: Violence Against Women and Girls Support Service” to survivors of domestic violence age 14 and above. The service, open daily, provides wide-ranging aid (e.g., education, counseling, and legal services) to victims of domestic violence. There are no shelters for domestic violence victims in the country.
Sexual Harassment: The criminal code prohibits sexual harassment and defines it as a petty misdemeanor. The law defines a wide range of activities constituting harassment, including unwanted communication whether anonymous or not, insults or taunts, communication at inconvenient hours or after indicating that further communication is unwelcome, and offensive or unwanted touching or coarse language that creates fear of bodily or property damage.
Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children, manage their reproductive health, and have access to the information and means to do so, free from discrimination, coercion, or violence. Access to information on contraception, prenatal care, skilled attendance at delivery, and postpartum care was available on Majuro and Kwajalein Atolls. On remote atolls only infirmaries with minimally trained attendants were available. The Ministry of Health provided free contraceptives, with particular emphasis on reducing the high rate of teenage pregnancy. A large number of premature babies were born to young teenage mothers, with a resulting high number of babies born with physical and mental disabilities. According to the UN Population Division, an estimated 43 percent of married women between the ages of 15 and 49 used some form of modern contraception in 2015.
Discrimination: Women generally enjoy the same rights as men. The inheritance of property and traditional rank is matrilineal on most atolls, although control of property often was delegated to male family members on behalf of female landowners. Tribal chiefs are the traditional authorities in the country. Customarily, a chief is the husband or eldest son of the female landowner. The traditional authority exercised by women has declined with growing urbanization and movement of the population away from traditional lands.
While female workers were prevalent in the public and private sectors, many were in low-paying jobs with little prospect for advancement. No law requires equal pay for equal work; however, men and women had pay equity for all government positions involving similar work. According to the 2011 Census Summary Report, 28 percent of all working-age women were employed, including in home production such as fishing, tuna canning, and handicraft manufacture.