© 2009 VANWODS Microfinance

Women and the Law

I’ve been a bit slack updating this blog. But I had a fascinating day yesterday, which I wanted to share (and was unable to do so in 140 characters on Twitter!) I was manning the VANWODS stall at Law Week, which was held at the Seafront in Port Vila. I had wanted to attend yesterday anyway, since there were speakers from the Vanuatu’s Women Centre, Women Against Crime in Vanuatu, as well as a representative of VANWODS.

The Vanuatu’s Women Centre is basically a domestic abuse shelter. They do great work, with providing legal services and advice, as well as a safe refuge for women and children. (And they deserve their own space! Ahem…) But the controversy yesterday came during the question-and-answer session following their speaker. It was an interesting set-up – in one section of seats, there was a group of men who egged each other on to speak. Scattered throughout the audience in the section facing them were women who I recognised as vocal spokespeople for women’s rights. Is this what it comes down to – that the fight for women’s rights in Vanuatu is in the hands of a few outspoken individuals, while discrimination is entrenched in the society?

Anyway, the first question came from one of the men sitting with the others, who asked where was the equality and why there wasn’t a Vanuatu Men’s Centre or why the VWC couldn’t combine to be a centre for all ni-Vanuatu. Fair enough, if men feel like they are victims of domestic abuse, there should be a place for them to go as well. But their calls of equality were exposed as lies, when a woman responded to the first speaker and said that nowhere in the Bible, did it say that men are the boss of women and the family. One of the men called out “Kiaman!” (liar in Bislama) and another one started reeling off Bible passages which he thought would prove his argument.

The debate seems to rage around the Family Protection Act which has already been enacted so is already in law, as the women activists kept stressing yesterday. And it took a long time to get there… it had been discussed for 10 years, and the President last year even refused to sign it, until the Supreme Court ordered him to do so. It is basically a law against domestic violence… something which seems uncontroversial to me as a “whiteman”. Don’t hit women. Is that so hard? But it seems like it is… some of the accusations flying around yesterday was that women were pushing the bill for financial reasons, because if the husband hits them and is found guilty, the victim will get compensation. Another question that was asked was “What if a man corrects his wife and goes to prison. The children will be without a father. How does this protect the family?”

A good thing about the debate was that it eventually seemed like the men were worn down and had to accept that this law was a reality. However, the women still had to accept concessions. One man said that when a woman wears trousers and her underwear is showing, a man will think that she likes sex and she can’t blame a man for raping her. That is why all women should wear the island dress. Another said that it was the victim’s fault she was raped, as she was walking outside alone at night (the reason for this was the bus couldn’t drive her all the way to her house and dropped her along a “half road”) and therefore, girls should have a curfew. Both times, the female respondent said that yes, we tell the girls not to dress like this, and not to walk alone by themselves at night. But at least, the women I was sitting with, were muttering “it’s about choice” when she said this.

As frustrating as it was to hear all that, it was still fascinating to be part of the dialogue in a country where equal rights is not a foregone conclusions. And it is in situations like this, where I feel that practical action like microfinance and putting money (and eventually power) into the hands of women, is more successful than advocacy.

Sorry, long and rambling yet again. Man, I need an editor.

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