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.
Birth Registration: A citizen father may transmit citizenship to his child regardless of where the child is born. A citizen mother alone may not transmit citizenship to her child, but the child may apply for citizenship at age 18 years. Parents usually registered the birth of a child immediately, unless the birth took place in a very remote village or island. Failure to register does not result in denial of public services.
Education: The government stressed the importance of children’s rights and welfare, but significant problems existed with regard to education. Although the government stated a commitment to free and universal education, school fees were a barrier to school attendance for some children.
School attendance is not compulsory. Boys tended to receive more education than did girls. Although attendance rates were similar in early primary grades, proportionately fewer girls advanced to higher grades. An estimated 50 percent of the population was functionally illiterate.
Child Abuse: Observers did not believe child abuse to be extensive, and the government did little to combat the problem. NGOs and law enforcement agencies reported increased complaints of incest and rape of children in recent years, but no statistics were available. The traditional extended family system generally protected children and played an active role in a child’s development. Virtually no children were homeless or abandoned.
Early and Forced Marriage: The legal age for marriage is 21 years, although boys as young as 18 years and girls as young as 16 years may marry with parental permission. In rural areas and outer islands, some children married at younger ages. In 2013 UNICEF reported that approximately 21 percent of children married before age 18. There were no government programs aimed at discouraging child marriage.
Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law addresses statutory rape, providing a maximum penalty of five years’ imprisonment if the child is older than 12 years but younger than 15 years, or 14 years’ imprisonment if the child is younger than 12 years. The law also prohibits commercial sexual exploitation of children, the sale of children, and the offering or procuring of a child for the purpose of prostitution or pornography.
Child pornography is illegal. The maximum penalty is five years’ imprisonment if the child is 14 years or older, and seven years’ imprisonment if the child is younger than 14 years. Under the law the age of consensual sex is 16 years regardless of sex or sexual orientation. Some children younger than 18 years engaged in prostitution.
International Child Abductions: The country is not a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at travel.state.gov/content/childabduction/en/legal/compliance.html.
The country’s Jewish community was limited to a few foreign nationals, and there were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.
Trafficking in Persons
There were no confirmed reports during the year that Vanuatu was a source, destination, or transit country for victims of human trafficking.
Persons with Disabilities
No law specifically prohibits discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, or mental disabilities. Although parliament passed a building code in 2013 to provide access for persons with disabilities in existing and new facilities, they could not access most buildings. There is a national policy designed to protect the rights of persons with disabilities, but the government did not implement it effectively. There was no specific legislation mandating access to information, judicial systems, or communications. Some provinces had care centers, but the government generally relied upon the traditional extended family and NGOs to provide services and support to persons with disabilities. The high rate of unemployment in the general population, combined with social stigma attached to disabilities, meant few jobs were available to persons with disabilities (see section 7.d.). Persons with mental disabilities generally did not have access to services. They usually relied on members of their extended families for assistance. School officials rejected many potential students with disabilities.
Most of the population is Melanesian, known locally as Ni-Vanuatu. Small minorities of Chinese, Fijians, Vietnamese, Tongans, and Europeans generally were concentrated in two towns and on a few plantations. Most of the land belongs to indigenous tribes, and they may not sell it, although increasingly they leased prime real estate to others. Within the limits of this system of land tenure, there generally were no reports of discrimination against ethnic minorities, although only indigenous farmers may legally grow kava, a native herb, for export.
Acts of Violence, Discrimination, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
There are no laws criminalizing sexual orientation or same-sex sexual conduct, but there were reports of discrimination and violence against LGBTI persons. LGBTI groups operated freely, but there are no antidiscrimination laws to protect them.
Other Societal Violence or Discrimination
Traditional beliefs in sorcery fueled violence against persons marginalized in their communities. Women were often targets of opportunity. In July two men were assaulted during a traditional court hearing after they were suspected of practicing witchcraft. Media reported that the chief ordered one of the men to leave the village with his family immediately and leave his home and possessions behind. A police investigation was pending at year’s end.