Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape–regardless of the victim’s gender–is a crime with a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. The law does not specifically criminalize spousal rape, but it can be prosecuted under related statutes that cover assault and domestic violence. The law criminalizes domestic violence and seeks to protect the rights of women and children. Violators could face maximum prison terms of five years, a maximum fine of VUV 100,000 ($860), or both. The law also calls for police to issue protection orders for as long as there is a threat of violence.
Police were frequently reluctant to intervene in what they considered domestic matters. There is, however, a “no drop,” evidence-based policy under which police are not supposed to drop reported domestic-violence cases. The Police Academy and the New Zealand government provided training for police in responding to domestic-violence and sexual-assault cases.
Violence against women, particularly domestic violence, was common. According to the most recent survey data available, 60 percent of women in a relationship experienced physical or sexual violence by a partner. According to a 2017 report from Correctional Services, more than 60 percent of prison inmates were charged with sex-related offenses. Most cases, including rape, were not reported to authorities because women, particularly in rural areas, were ignorant of their rights or feared further abuse.
There were no countrywide government information programs designed to address domestic violence. Although media attention to domestic violence and abuse was generally limited, the killings of two women by their partners in Port Vila in 2017 received significant attention.
The Department of Women’s Affairs played a role in implementing family protection. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) 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.
Other Harmful Traditional Practices: Customary bride-price payments continued and contributed to the perception of male ownership of women.
Sexual Harassment: The law does not prohibit sexual harassment, and it was a problem. Sexual harassment was widespread in the workplace.
Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization.
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 equal to those of men. The law, however, does not allow citizen mothers alone to transmit citizenship to their children.
Although the law does not prohibit women from owning or inheriting property or land, tradition generally bars women from land ownership or property inheritance.
Women were slowly emerging from a traditional culture characterized by male dominance, but women continued to experience discrimination in access to employment, credit, and pay equity for substantially similar work. The Department of Women’s Affairs 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, holding multiple open workshops throughout the year that coincided with public holidays to encourage participation at the local community level.
Birth Registration: A citizen father, but not a citizen mother, may transmit citizenship to a child regardless of where the child is born. A child born of a citizen mother may apply for citizenship at age 18. The lack of citizenship at birth can cause a child to be denied passports and other rights and services. 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 access to education. Although the government stated its commitment to free and universal education, school fees and difficult geography were barriers to school attendance for some children.
School attendance is not compulsory. In general boys received more education than 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: The country does not have a legal definition of child abuse, but the law addresses sexual abuse of children and states that parents must protect children from violence within the family setting. The national child protection policy recognizes the government’s responsibility to protect all children from violence, abuse, exploitation, and neglect and includes the need to introduce a child protection bill.
NGOs and law-enforcement agencies reported increased complaints of child abuse, incest, and rape of children in recent years. A 2017 UNICEF report stated that eight of 10 children from ages two to four experienced violent discipline at home. It also stated that one in three children experienced severe physical punishment at home and that sexual abuse before the age of 15 affected three of 10 children. The government did little to combat the problem.
In April 2018, for example, a six-year-old girl was abducted from her home, raped, and killed. In April the perpetrator was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment by the Supreme Court in the first case prosecuted under the Penal Code amendment of 2017.
Early and Forced Marriage: The legal age for marriage is 21 years, although boys as young as 18 and girls as young as 16 may marry with parental permission. In rural areas and outer islands, some children married at younger ages. In 2018 UNICEF reported that approximately 21 percent of children married before age 18.
Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law addresses statutory rape, providing a maximum penalty of five years’ imprisonment if the child is older than 13 but younger than 15, or 14 years’ imprisonment if the child is younger than 13. 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. There were no criminal cases dealing with pornography or child sexual exploitation during the year.
The maximum penalty for publishing child pornography is five years’ imprisonment and for possession, two years’ imprisonment.
Under the law the age of consensual sex is 16 regardless of sex or sexual orientation. Some children younger than 18 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 https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.
The country’s Jewish community consisted of a few foreign nationals, and there were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.
Trafficking in Persons
In November 2018 four Bangladeshi nationals were arrested for trafficking 100 Bangladeshi men and two children to work for the Mr Price company (a South African retailer) in Vanuatu. At their September hearing, all four pleaded not guilty. The trial in the Supreme Court began on November 21, but it recessed on December 6 with a scheduled January 2020 resumption. Of the 102 victims, 77 have departed the country, and 25 remained as witnesses against their alleged traffickers.
Persons with Disabilities
No law specifically prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities. Although the building code mandates access for persons with disabilities in existing and new facilities, they could not access most buildings.
The government did not effectively implement national policy designed to protect the rights of persons with disabilities. Access to services through the Ministry of Health’s mental-health policy was very limited. Schools were generally not accessible to children with disabilities.
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.
Acts of Violence, Discrimination, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
No laws criminalize sexual orientation or consensual same-sex sexual conduct, but there were reports of discrimination and violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex (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, although there were no documented cases during the year. Women were often targets of opportunity.