Rape and Domestic Violence: Although rape is a crime with a maximum penalty of life imprisonment, the law does not specifically cite spousal rape, and police frequently were reluctant to intervene in what they considered domestic matters.
Violence against women, particularly domestic violence, was common. According to the 2009 Vanuatu National Survey on Women’s Lives and Family Relationships, 60 percent of women in a relationship experienced physical or sexual violence by a partner in their lifetime. Police reported an increase in the number of cases of violence against women, but most cases, including rape, went unreported to authorities because women, particularly in rural areas, were ignorant of their rights or feared further abuse. A UN report estimated that as few as 2 percent of domestic violence cases were reported to police.
The law criminalizes domestic violence and seeks to protect the rights of women, children, and families. Violators could face maximum prison terms of five years, a maximum fine of 100,000 vatu ($935), or both. The law also calls for police to issue protection orders for as long as there is a threat of violence. A protection order does not require proof of injury. Police have a “no drop,” evidence-based policy under which they do not drop reported domestic violence cases. If the victim later wishes to withdraw a complaint, the victim must go to court to request it be dropped.
There were no government information programs designed to address domestic violence, and media attention to domestic abuse was limited. As part of the New Zealand government’s regional Pacific Prevention of Domestic Violence Program, Radio Vanuatu broadcasted a bimonthly program in which police raised awareness and discussed issues related to domestic violence. The Department of Women’s Affairs played a role in implementing family protection. The Police Academy and the New Zealand government provided training for police in responding to domestic violence and sexual assault cases.
Churches and other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operated facilities for abused women. NGOs also played an important role in educating the public about domestic violence and helping women access the formal justice system, but they lacked sufficient funding to implement their programs fully. A UN report noted that 92 percent of women and children who accessed the courts received assistance from an NGO or the police Family Protection Unit.
Other Harmful Traditional Practices: Customary bride-price payments continued to increase in value and contributed to the perception of male ownership of women.
Sexual Harassment: The law does not prohibit sexual harassment, and it was a problem. In April a girl died after she jumped off a moving bus to escape alleged sexual harassment by the bus driver.
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; manage their reproductive health; and have access to the information and means to do so, free from discrimination, coercion, and violence. According to 2016 estimates by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), only 38 percent of women between 15 and 49 years used a modern method of contraception, and 24 percent of women had an unmet need for family planning services. Religious conservatism and sociocultural preference for large families may contribute to low use of family-planning methods. The unmet need for family planning was particularly high among poor and disadvantaged women, and adolescent girls. Although teenage fertility rates declined in the last decade, they remained high in the country. The adolescent birth rate is 78 births per 1,000 girls between 15 and 19 years, according to UNFPA. The Burnet Institute reported that sociocultural norms and taboos around sexual behavior prevented adolescents from accessing sexual and reproductive health services. The institute also reported that costs of services and commodities, as well as limited availability of facilities and service providers, particularly in rural areas, were significant barriers to access.
The country’s geography in relation to service delivery points, both between islands and at remote inland locations, sometimes made it difficult to obtain medical care. Obstacles included lack of adequate roads and the high cost of transport to reach health-care facilities.
Discrimination: The constitution provides women the same personal and religious rights as men. Laws regarding marriage, criminal procedures, and employment further enshrine women’s rights as being equal to those of men. Although the law does not prohibit women from owning or inheriting property or land, tradition generally bars women from land ownership or property inheritance. Many female leaders viewed village chiefs as major obstacles to social, political, and economic rights for women. The country’s nationality law discriminates against citizen mothers who may not alone transmit citizenship to their children.
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. Women experienced discrimination in access to employment, credit, and pay equity for substantially similar work (see section 7.d.). Court fees and transport costs associated with filing court cases affect women’s ability to access the formal justice system. There is also a lack of clear and consistent information on the fundamental rights of women and children and how they can achieve them. The Department of Women worked with regional and international organizations to increase women’s access to the formal justice system and educate women about their rights under the law.