Paradise Lost: Violence Against Women and Gender Inequality in the Pacific Islands

A woman sitting in a traditional hut in Samoa.
A woman sitting in a traditional hut in Samoa.

By Imrana Jalal

Women in the region must learn to defend themselves, and say enough is enough.

The Pacific islands conjure up images of paradise: white sand beaches, transparent sparkling aquamarine seas, and happy smiling islanders. But what lies beneath is the unacceptable treatment of women and rampant gender inequality, as the iconic tourist images mask the highest rates in the world of intimate partner sexual and domestic violence against women, ranging from around 68% in Papua New Guinea (PNG), Fiji and Kiribati to 40% in Samoa. Against this milieu, paradise is surely lost for women and girls in the Pacific.

Not much appears to have changed since Susan Brownmiller wrote her brilliant seminal book Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape in 1975. That book had such a profound impact on me becoming a feminist in my early 20s.

Gender equality appears to have advanced everywhere, and so, you would think, would attitudes about wife beating. However, according to a new UNFPA report, this is far from the truth.

The report highlights how in Timor-Leste a staggering 81% of teenage girls believe a husband is justified in beating his wife for at least one reason. The figures were slightly lower for Kiribati, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, Samoa, and Vanuatu, but still speak volumes about how girls perceive their mothers’ status. In Tonga, faring somewhat better, just over 25% of girls think domestic violence is acceptable in some circumstances.

Aren’t we raising our daughters differently? Aren’t we asking them to dream a different dream, one that allows them lives with dignity, husbands who respect them, and a decent education followed by paid work? Not so, it seems.

Picture how the intergenerational cycle of domestic violence, actual criminal assault against women in the home, is perpetuated. Teenage girls watch their mothers being beaten by their fathers. The father is the patriarch after all. It is he who must be obeyed. These impressionable young women consider it justifiable, because their mothers do. They too get beaten when they are grown women, and in turn they teach their own daughters—even if it is only by subliminal socialization—that it is acceptable too. And so the cycle continues and that’s why those 81% of Timorese girls think it’s fine for their fathers to beat their mothers.

Last week, Dame Meg Taylor, Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum and the first female leader of the regional organization, reminded us of some of these problems in the Pacific. In ADB’s Manila headquarters as annual Gender Month distinguished speaker, Dame Meg pointed out that the last 2012 Women’s Economic Opportunity Index, published by the Economist Intelligence Unit, provided a global comparison of women’s economic opportunities including, for the first time, six Pacific countries. The Pacific ranked very poorly in this index of 128 countries, with most of the six surveyed countries in the bottom 25%. The Solomon Islands and PNG were ranked at 124 and 125, respectively.

“The urgency of dealing with gender-based violence in the Pacific is self-evident,” she said.

It is important to remember that one cannot point to individual successful women to rationalize the advancement of gender equality, as is commonly done in the Pacific. Gender indexes measure women’s advancement as a group. The success of individual women is laudable, but it is an anomaly, an exception to the rule. They succeed in spite of the system, not because of it. It is important and appropriate to celebrate them for many reasons, including their importance as role models to girls and young women. But this cannot, and should not, be an overall indicator of gender equality.

So what can we do about it?

For a start we need to question the fundamentals of patriarchy‎ that require fathers to reign supreme. Based on my experience representing hundreds of battered women in court, try counseling and mediation first, but if that does not work then prosecute and seek punishment. Women should expose their husbands and partners for their criminal acts. This would send an important message to their daughters.

We must raise our daughters and sons differently than we have been. We need to tell them over and over again at home, at school and in the churches, mosques and temples that hitting a woman is a criminal assault, a violation of a woman’s human rights. The same act committed outside the home would be considered a crime. They need to understand that if their father considered their mother his equal, he would not beat her.

Women have to defend themselves and say enough is enough. Ultimately they have to walk away from marriages in which men refuse to change. These small acts of dignity may turn the tide for their daughters.

All of this reminds me of why I am still a feminist. For Pacific island women and girls, we need to keep working until paradise is regained.