What comes to mind when you think of the Pacific? The rhetoric usually centres on happiness and holidays, cocktails by the beach and the cordial welcome received from locals wherever one may travel. The shout of Bula in Fiji, a Welkam in Vanuatu, or a Malo e lelei in Tonga.

While that story does indeed ring true for many, there is another story that needs to be told: the work of an incredible cohort across the region working to combat, and end, all forms of violence against women.

The Pacific region has some of the highest rates of violence against women in the world, with up to 68 percent of women having reported experiencing physical or sexual violence by a partner in their lifetime. This figure is more than twice the global average.

Pacific Women Lead’s 2021 National Survey on Women’s Lives and Family Relationships evidenced amongst those women who have ever had an intimate sexual relationship with a partner in Vanuatu:

  • 60 percent had experienced physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime
  • 68 percent had experienced emotional violence
  • 28 percent were subjected to several forms of control by their partner
  • 69 percent experienced at least one form of coercive control, and most of these were continuing to live lives involving physical and sexual violence

Women are constantly at risk of violence and threats, regardless of where they are. Women are not safe on the streets, in their homes, at work, in places of study, places of worship, or places of recreation.

Any small change is a step in the right direction

The global Spotlight Initiative to eliminate violence against women and girls is a United Nations joint initiative supported by the European Union and other partners.

The Spotlight Initiative in the Pacific focuses its work on four key pillars:

  1. Policy and legislation
  2. Institutions
  3. Prevention
  4. Data

A comprehensive approach is being implemented within the Pacific nations through the targeting of multiple settings for change such as the education sector, government, churches, the justice sector, and civil society organisations (CSOs), and by working across a variety of levels of the socio-ecological model.

UNDP’s support to Vanuatu via the Spotlight Initiative sees it working with small, grassroots organisations – making an impact from the ground up.

Through the establishment of a grantee program, UNDP Pacific has undertaken a second phase and partnered with six grassroots organisations on empowering women in rural communities, initiating a range of activities that, in many cases, support service provision, innovative solutions and engagement activities that aim to provide information and basic services to those who otherwise lack access.

These grants go a long way and have made significant impact thus far, with the program also identifying those grassroots organisations who have the capacity to engage communities nationwide in the provision of justice, health, and economic support services to survivors of intimate partner violence.

However, in Vanuatu, it is a far greater challenge to change this deeply ingrained behaviour; it is the kind of change that requires more than the delivery of an awareness session in a small community, or within the nakamal, should deep, long-lasting behavioural change occur.

A market vendor shows off her handicrafts in Port Vila, Vanuatu.
Photo: UNDP

The way we now frame the topic has completely changed  

And as a result, the narrative is now changing. For sustainable, long-term progress on ending violence against women, men, women, and children; young, old and those in between, all must unite in the fight against gender-based violence (GBV).

“The way we now frame the topic has completely changed, it’s no longer just a women’s problem. While the vast majority of perpetrators are men, if we want to make change, we need to realise that this can only be done via a whole-of-community approach,” said Dr. Astrid Kersten, Executive Director of Human Capacity Development International (HCDI).

HCDI take a whole-of-community approach to their work, collaborating with village chiefs all the way through to younger members of the community. This approach sees a broad cross-section of voices and opinions accounted for, ensuring that through community buy-in the behaviour change work they undertake is sustainable in the long-term.

As one of the recipient organisations (alongside their partner, Sista) to receive a grant via the Spotlight Initiative, HCDI and Sista focused on two key activities:

  1. The development of community resources to assist in community awareness development and collective action, related to reducing GBV; and
  2. To build on and promote the Stanap Strong website as a resource to support victims, families of victims, and the general population.

HCDI and Sista are making inroads and inspiring change, no doubt, but Astrid still has moments of self-doubt as to just how much progress they are making on ending violence against women.

“I do keep thinking, ‘is this really making a difference?’ It is still hard going, training and capacity building are still key right across Vanuatu, and we need continued support to help us beyond the Spotlight Initiative.

“These grants may be small but with our work it doesn’t take a whole lot of money to ensure that we can have significant impact,” she said.

When you lift up women you lift the entire community  

When the grassroots organisation Sista was established in 2016, its main purpose was to create a space for Ni-Vanuatu women to connect, share and uplift each other.

Sista began its journey as an online magazine and over the past eight years has evolved into a women’s rights organisation driven by feminist values.

Josephine Tarianga serves as Sista’s Resource Coordinator, a powerhouse of a young woman. Having worked as a journalist, at just 22 she is not only working with Sista, and Vanuatu’s We Rise Coalition, she is also studying a double degree of Law and Commerce with the University of the South Pacific.

Blending her passions of media and communications with furthering women’s rights, Josephine says that just because you’re a feminist, it doesn’t equate to you not being committed to your community.

“Things are still very male dominated here, but at the same time change is in the air. Women are the focal point for any community, when you lift up women you lift the entire community, and our work with HCDI is doing just that,” she said.

Sista’s work in the field of media and communications perfectly complements the face-to-face, community conversation approach of HCDI, and beyond the community level Josephine hopes to influence policy change and to have media in Vanuatu more accurately tell the story of ni-Vanuatu women.

“A lot of our work is subconscious, it’s subtle. Many don’t realise, particularly the men we work with, that we are working quite slowly at changing mindsets, one step at a time. We ask people to reflect on who they are now and the type of person they want to be, the type of community it is that they want to be a part of.

“When you frame things this way, there isn’t a single person that can say that they wouldn’t want to better the lives of all members of their family, their community, and their country,” she said.

Helen Bong of ActionAid Vanuatu is another recipient of this grant funding.
Photo: UNDP

Delivering for real people, in real places, on their own terms  

Ending violence against women and girls is essential to ensuring that all people, regardless of gender, can live in dignity and safety. Without this, we cannot achieve gender equality or realise the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

UNDP and the Spotlight Initiative are working with grassroots organisations in Vanuatu to deliver on the sustainable development agenda at the local level. These organisations are deeply embedded in their communities and are best placed to understand the needs and priorities of local people.

A 2021 study by the Association for Women’s Rights in Development – a global, feminist, membership, movement-support organisation – found GBV to be both a public health emergency and human rights violation on a global scale. And yet, approximately 99 percent of all gender-related international aid does not reach grassroots women’s rights and feminist organisations.

By working with these organisations in Vanuatu, UNDP and the Spotlight Initiative are ensuring that the SDGs are delivered for real people, in real places, and on their own terms.

ActionAid Vanuatu is another recipient of this grant funding, their work supporting local women to become powerful community leaders, particularly in times of crisis.

Like many small, CSOs, Helen Bong wears multiple hats within ActionAid Vanuatu. She is the group’s Finance Officer, while at the same time working within the areas of community engagement, communications, human resources, and programme implementation.

Through Spotlight grant funding, ActionAid Vanuatu has conducted research on the intersectionality between disability, economic pressures, and domestic violence – revealing that 64 percent of disabled women reported their partners regularly demanded money, while almost all participants stated that they experienced domestic violence.

The group has established 10 livelihoods projects in rural communities, with over 130 women participating in a loan scheme to support their work in agriculture and subsistence farming, boosting overall economic resilience. And, in addition, ActionAid Vanuatu conducted community awareness sessions on GBV, establishing a group of watchdogs: community champions who report on cases of GBV in communities.

These watchdogs also provide information on referral pathways, and work at the provincial government level on creating strategic plans for ending violence against women and girls.

Mobilising these local female community members to form watchdog groups has increased the reporting and recording of violence against women in communities. With limited services and limited awareness, community meetings and awareness raising is used in passing information on violence against women and girls, and works to break the taboo associated with speaking out on issues related to violence against women and girls.

“Working across five islands, and within around 20 communities, we are seeing great impact with our work. We are creating a model at the provincial level and believe that this is something that could be rolled out nationally,” Helen said.

Through ActionAid Vanuatu’s work the organisation is equipping women and girls with the tools and resources required to build solidarity, sisterhood, and strength. The next step is to take this work, and look at what other grassroots organisations are doing across Vanuatu, and align this work under an umbrella organisation that can advocate on behalf of all women and girls across the country.

“For us, there is definitely the need for one movement, one voice. There are so many organisations here working across Vanuatu to further the women’s movement and to make positive change, but if we create a coordination body and take the recommendations from this to government, we will create the opportunity to move our work forward more quickly,” Helen said.

Port Vila Harbour, Vanuatu.
Photo: UNDP

It’s reassuring to know that women are brave enough to step up  

Change is slowly taking shape in Vanuatu, with women now finding themselves with a voice on the floor of parliament for the first time since 2008.

Gloria Julie King, a mother, businesswoman, and former player and coach of Vanuatu’s national women’s football side, picked up one of the five seats in the constituency of Efate, the country’s main island and home to its capital, Port Vila.

Despite women making up 49 percent of the population in Vanuatu, their presence in politics remains woefully inadequate.

This glaring lack of gender diversity not only undermines democratic principles and equitable representation, but also deprives societies of the invaluable perspectives and contributions that women offer to the decision-making process. While women’s representation is rapidly increasing worldwide, the Pacific region is lagging.

In an interview with France 24 following her election October of 2023, King said “Do not give up. Women [must] continue to support each other by lifting each other up. It’s reassuring to know that women are brave enough to step up.”

UNDP Pacific Office in Fiji Resident Representative, Munkhtuya Altangerel, said the Spotlight Initiative and UNDP’s work with grassroots organisations was key to transformative and sustainable change.

“The Spotlight Initiative is a powerful tool for transforming the lives of women and girls, and UNDP is proud to be a part of this important work in Vanuatu. We cannot achieve our goals without working together, and we are grateful for the partnership of grassroots organisations and with the Government of Vanuatu in the fight for gender equality and sustainable development,” she said.

The Spotlight Initiative is a critical investment in the future of Vanuatu, a powerful tool for transforming the lives of women and girls. By working together, we can create a country where all women and girls are safe, respected, where women and girls have the opportunity to thrive.

The Spotlight Initiative Regional Programme in the Pacific runs through until December 2023.


Sourced UNDP Pacific Office