nikita-vanuatuWhether spoken or unspoken, it is common in Vanuatu for women to be perceived as dependants rather than independents. From the personal home to the parliament house, women are seen as in need of being taken care of and are often left out of the decision-making process.

When people find out that I am a single mother and not looking for a partner, most of them are horrified. But can you blame me when most of my female friends are being controlled by their partners and are expected to be nothing more than obedient and domesticated wives, daughters or mothers?

The statistics show that women are often infantized by the males around them. So is it any surprise that our government, comprised of 52 males, is doing the same by prohibiting women from being employed at night? Statistics taken from the Vanuatu Women’s Centre research on “Women’s Lives & Family Relationships” 2009 shows that 47% of women must ask their husband/partner for permission before she goes to hospital.

A women’s disobedience is also seen as a trigger/reason for a man to hit his partner/wife (page 166

Every time I go to lift or fix something, I am almost always stopped from doing so by someone saying “I’ll get a man to do that”. I personally grew up in a home with my single mother and a younger sister. The heavy lifting was deferred to me, as was the lawn mowing and other “manly” activities. I had those responsibilities by the time I was 8 years old.

Vanuatu is moving forward in many ways

I must admit there are many forward thinking men and parents in Vanuatu that want nothing less for their daughters than to get high marks and continue in school as long as she can. And yes there are husbands and boyfriends that are supportive of their partners pursuing further education and joining sports clubs.

In fact, I am impressed with our country in the many ways it supports women – the women’s movement is becoming reflected and mainstreamed in policies, more and more. Next year, the government has even set aside a budget for gender!

We do have laws that support women

In some ways we are leaps and bounds ahead of even neighbouring developed countries such as Australia. For example we have the Family Protection Act and the laws surrounding Maternity Leave ensures that we are legally entitled to leave as per the Employment Act (section 36, Consolidated Edition 2006 which commenced in 1983).

Maternity Leave in Vanuatu entitles women 12 weeks maternity leave at no less than half the remuneration she would have earned had she not been absent, two half hour nursing breaks a day and counted as working hours and thus also renumerated accordingly, and a restriction on the dismissal of women absent due to pregnancy.

This is seen as a way to safe guard the highly valued role and position women play in our society as mothers and daughters of our beautiful nation.

In section 8 of the Employment Act, sex discrimination is also prohibited in regards to the rate a woman and a man are renumerated in comparison to men and women undertaking the same or similar types of work.

In our Constitution, sex is not allowed to be a reason for discrimination in regards to freedom of expression or freedom of movement as well as many other areas. Equal treatment should be afforded all citizens under the law, male and female, except that it (law) makes provision for the special benefit, welfare, protection or advancement of females, children and young persons, members of under-privileged groups or inhabitants of less developed areas.

It is through this article in our Constitution that the Family Protection Act affords protection to women and children from domestic violence and the employment act has been legally able to accommodate maternity leave for women. These are steps forward.

So yes the laws are good – but they need to be ENFORCED and there are some laws that need to be REVISED

However there is one key part of the Employment act that severely restricts women’s rights to freedom of expression and movement. As a single mother this may impede on the type of employment and hours of working I choose in regards to make a living and providing for my children’s needs in life.

This is seen in article 35 of the act in “PART 8 – EMPLOYMENT OF WOMEN AND YOUNG PERSONS Notedly: 35. Prohibition of employment of women at night.”

Yes women are still restricted in the year 2017 from being employed at night.

There are few exemptions on the types of employment a woman can engage in at night notably work that does not involve physical labour, work in the entertainment industry, nursing, health care or welfare work and work with raw materials or work in an emergency situation.

I believe that this law was originally put in place as a way to protect and to safeguard women and their rights as caregivers to children their families in their traditional Melanesian and Christian roles. However this section of the act does more harm than good when it takes away a women’s choice and rights to the type of employment she undertakes.

Instead of protecting and advancing a women’s rights it infantizes her to no less than a dependant and vulnerable party in need of protection. Under the Act, night is defined as: the period between 7 o’clock in the evening and 6 o’clock in the morning.

The Law favors young men over women

To put it in perspective, compare how it treats younger men compared to women.

In relation to Article 41. Employment of Persons under 18

(1) A person under the age of 18 years shall not be employed during the night in any industrial undertaking, except that, if such person is over the age of 16 years, he may be so employed subject to the written consent of a labour officer.

(2) In subsection (1) “night” means a period of at least 7 consecutive hours falling between 10 o’clock in the evening and 6 o’clock in the morning.

This means that a woman’s son older than 16 but younger than 18 years (legally still a child in international and Vanuatu Laws) can engage in employment at night 3 hours longer than his own mother who is also at that age still legally responsible for him.

I was always reminded by a university lecturer of mine who inspired and taught me so much that if you come with a problem, prepare one or two solutions at the same time.

So below is my solution and proposal for an amendment of this law which will not only protect a women’s cultural and family rights in a traditional Christian and Melanesian sense but also promote a women’s right on a human rights level.

Here are some solutions….

If you take time to read the Employment Act, it has a section in regards to working on Sundays and public holidays namely Act 23. Work on public holidays (1) Except where he voluntarily undertakes to do so, no employee shall be required to work on a Sunday or public holiday. In short, there are exceptions to certain employment undertaking.

This section, when applied to woman, gives her the voluntary choice to her alone. She can decide whether she wants or needs to work at night. Would this clause provide for the protection of a woman’s marital, motherly and cultural rights while also not impeding her rights to movement and freedom of expression? Will this also offer her the opportunity to make informed adult decisions that affect her ability to provide for herself and her family?

Why not provide this clause for women working at night? Safeguarding women does not mean treating women different from their male counterparts or by undermining her right of choice but providing her with more options and choices.

Furthermore if fathers, husbands and sons are concerned for the safety of women who travel to work at night or the early hours of the morning, then why not have several “pink buses” operated by women for women? This would protect women by providing them with all of their constitutional rights.

If the government is genuinely concerned about protecting and preventing harm to women. A pink bus would be a great start to this………

Oh I forgot – it could only operate with a female driver between 6 am in the morning and 7 at night because land transport as a form of employment at night are not permitted under the current employment act……. Hence we need a clause to amend the act!

The other steps I suggest is intensive training of current bus and taxi drivers in the law – first aid training, child protection training and the addition of a National Sexual Harassment policy.

These would be forward steps in safeguarding women and their rights. When the law and government recognise the need for this than society will follow on and hopefully start to consider women as equal counterparts to men also.

Niki Taiwia is a local humanitarian writer and works for a not-for-profit organisation in Vanuatu.

Niki has set up a safe house for Ni-Vanuatu children from difficult backgrounds (disability and victims of sexual abuse) and assists single mothers with the ultimate goal of empowering people who are in vulnerable positions.

The passionate human rights activist says, ‘I believe in the power of advocacy and providing a voice for those who want to tell their stories but are fearful or not confident in doing so. Many issues in Ni-Vanuatu culture are seen as taboo to talk about but it is essential to bring these topics to light to change women’s position in society.’

Through her advocacy, Niki has met many vulnerable women who recognize the benefit of sharing their stories as not only a form of therapy and relief, but also as a way to empower and give hope to others who are in similar situations.

Sista Magazine is honoured to collaborate with Niki to assist women in vulnerable and disadvantaged situations to share their stories. ‘This is a way in which we can hear women and girls’ stories and raise a voice through embracing each other,’ says Niki. ‘So Speak Up Sista!’