16 days of Activism Against Gender Violence is a global campaign in November each year where thousands of organizations across the globe are demanding an end to violence in their communities. This includes peaceful demonstrations in many countries to call for an end to gender-based violence and appeals to governments to respond, protect, and prevent violence against women.
Except that here in the Solomon Islands, where I’m visiting Global Fund for Women Grantee Partners and advisors, I heard that last year during the 16 days campaign, a Solomon Islands woman who joined the demonstration here was killed for her participation. This year, I was told, another woman was killed before the 16 days commenced.
Here in the Solomon Islands, if we were using color code, it would be Gender Red.
This is what I heard from the women with whom I met*. Of all those in prison in the Solomon Islands, 50% are alcohol related and 87% are sexual abuse cases. Incest cases have increased rapidly – there is, increasingly a lack of boundaries by fathers, uncles and other relatives in relation to their daughters, nieces and granddaughters.
Violence against young girls is increasing markedly and so many young women are facing a life and death situation – there are increasing reports of young women who have been killed by their husbands. Some husbands are also targeting girls and young women for affairs. A big factor is that people aren’t working, which increases frustration, particularly amongst males. This has also resulted in girls getting married too early and husbands drinking and beating their wives. Also, marital rape was only banned in the Solomon Islands two months ago. Women who have no husbands are particularly targeted for violence outside of the home, and this violence is getting worse.
“In the Solomon Islands, women look at men as perpetrators of horrendous violence,” said one woman.
The violence is playing itself out in other ways too, compounded by a lack of regulation and effective governance. Prostitution is increasing due to unemployment. Trafficking of girls and young women is also increasing, spurred by the existence of the logging and mining camps which attract more men with money and who convince very poor families to sell their daughters. Many graduates have no jobs and crime is high while the health system is deteriorating. Teachers can choose whether or not they go to school as there is no oversight. There is a lack of confidence in government. Police are supposed to be enforcing the law but some of them have been involved in rape cases and there is nowhere else for women to report that they’ve been raped.
The Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI) was established in the Solomon Islands in 2003 after the local government requested outside assistance to stabilize the country after escalating violence between warring ethnic groups. It is now winding down its military presence and retaining a police focused mission. “Compared to 2006, things are a lot better, the country has evolved,” Sgt Major Spence said in a report in the Solomon Star News on December 2nd 2012. “You no longer have that tension, you no longer have that insecurity.”
And yet a humanitarian crisis of devastating impact is playing out on the island. How is it that such escalating violence can be normalized to such an extent that the declaration this week is that “…the country has evolved. You no longer have that tension…that insecurity.” Why can’t the same level of resources and financial investment that brought RAMSI to this country for 9 years to deal with the unrest be directed toward creating a safe environment for women and girls to live – and to feel that they have a future?
There are no green lights for the Solomon Islands in terms of progress against the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, which have an achievement deadline of 2015. As one of the women I met with said, “when we were reviewing progress on the MDGs we didn’t see any green lights for the Solomon Islands, they were all orange or red.”
The YWCA is doing a lot of advocacy around the 16 days of activism against gender violence but acknowledges that it’s a struggle. It provides a safe space for young women to work together and to connect with women from many cultures and backgrounds. As one of the women said, “The YWCA is working to create more space for young Solomon Islands women to learn more about assuming leadership positions in in order to influence change and RISE UP is its program to facilitate this.”
If you’re a woman with a disability (some 5,500 women on the Solomon Islands, according to the women with whom I met) then you rely solely on your family for assistance as there is no government assistance. If you’re abused by a family member, which is common, then there is no recourse. “A girl born with a disability is like a death sentence in the Solomon Islands. There is so much prejudice by family members, religious leaders and wider society here. You can times by four the discrimination experienced by a girl/woman with a disability,” said one woman who talked with me. She went on to say “Few girls with disabilities outside of Honiara can go to school due to access issues and lack of care facilities within the schools. Not many of us are out and about talking up what is happening to girls and women with disabilities of any kind.”
Two of the young women I met with had left school due to not being able to afford school fees and they recently joined Keni Ta’A Women’s Group (Women on the Edge) led by young women in the Malaita Province in the Solomon Islands and which received its first grant from the Global Fund.
The organization’s mission is “Building the capacity of the young women in the village so that they can help themselves and their families.” The group was started by two women who, in response to the high drop-out rate of girls and young women from primary and secondary school, decided to intervene with what they perceived to be a negative phenomenon within women in their community.
An initial meeting resulted in a weekly meeting of women from the community to discuss how best to advance women’s education and empowerment together with economic opportunities and other issues raised by young women. The group used funds from the Global Fund to purchase sewing machines for their main income-generating activity so that they can work while they meet, and generate funds while also improving their skills and confidence. These young women are also accompanying older women to meetings in order to learn how to advocate and express their needs. The forum we convened while I was in the Solomon Islands provided them an early opportunity to be able to do just that. From my meeting with them, it is likely that they will work closely with the National Council of Women and the YWCA in the time ahead to develop strategies and take action on access to education and training, with support from the Global Fund.
Girls’ education is a critical need, especially for those in the isolated islands of the Solomons where girls have to cross water by canoe and pay the transport cost. Even if these girls manage to cross the rivers to their nearest school, they may not find teachers in that school due to a shortage of teachers willing to be located in the more isolated areas of the country. In these remote areas, teachers have difficulty accessing their salary due to isolation and the cost of getting their salary may represent half their wages. This lack of educational opportunity for girls and young women feeds a cycle of hopelessness that can only be broken by a government that is committed to education for all young people and with the political will to make it happen. Given that girls are doubly disadvantaged by being female, there is a deep need for advocacy on their behalf in Parliament and regional forums.
“We need more women in Parliament, women with progressive policies. However there is only one woman in Parliament and she sticks closely with the men,” said one woman. “We need a born leader to push the issues and secure legislation with regulation. We need a group of women in Parliament, in solidarity together. Currently we have some policies to protect women but no teeth,” said another. “We are going about our lives while our houses are on fire,” added another woman. “The space between the haves and the have nots is a gulf so wide I don’t know how it will ever be reconciled,” said her colleague. There is no democratic governance here or space for citizen engagement. Even funds given to Parliamentarians in the Solomon Islands to support women’s initiatives wasn’t made public so there was no accountability as to how this money was expended until one woman learnt about it and spread the word to women to lobby their local members.
“The best option for young women to stay safe is to get out of the country but this is an option that’s only open to the educated few. And it is usually those who are the daughters of men who are currently in positions of influence and power. 85% of women are caught up in this vicious cycle of fear and abuse in this country and there is no escape given the mantra that ‘the family is the home’ when it is often also the center of violence and abuse.”
While there are technical and vocational training facilities, and even talk of a Solomon Islands National University here, they have high admission standards and they don’t provide an option for girls and young women who can’t afford the fees to finish school. Nepotism is also apparently high in terms of who gets access and who gets a place. What is needed is a pathway for girls to finish school and low entry options to training facilities across a range of industries quite aside from the more academically oriented tech training and university options.
Creative and impactful options need to be considered. For instance, given the very important work being done on health workforce reform in Australia and other countries, and the prediction of a global shortage of healthworkers, particularly in the allied health fields, couldn’t more training facilities that require a range of skillsets be established in the Pacific to address this anticipated shortage and thus build skills and expertise within the Pacific while giving young women options beyond their current very limited horizon?
The group of women, and young women, I met with were so fired up by our conversations that they and other agencies will work with the Global Fund on a strategic plan of action. One that will support these brave women to address some of the critical issues needed to advance the lives of women and girls in the Solomons. They will also reach out to Live and Learn Environmental Education in the Solomon Islands, which has just convened the first gathering of men working to address violence against women with the intention of expanding this program in the time ahead.
Even as I typed this missive from my room I stopped due to a scuffle outside my door where a man had a woman up against the wall and was hitting her. Of course he stopped due to my fury – and I reported the incident – but the same situation is no doubt being played out across the island right now.
*I cannot show a photo of these women or share their names in case there is retribution against them for speaking out.
Jane Sloane – Solomon Islands