This article was originally published in The Vanuatu Daily Post.
In March this year, Florence Lengkon, manager of Vanuatu Helicopters, spoke out on social media against the aggressive behavior of bus drivers after rocks were thrown at a tour bus full of overseas passengers.
Shortly afterward, she was kidnapped, taken down to the wharf and beaten by a group of men, and forced to apologise for her comments online. The incident left her with abrasions on her lip, a swollen nose and blackened eye.
Hundreds of women, men and children peacefully marched the streets towards the parliament house to protest against violence and demand tougher legislation and reinforcement of existing laws to protect and bring justice to victims of violence. Twelve petitions were handed to the parliament, which included a request to review the Family Protection Act 2008 and to see ‘MPs of Vanuatu recruited as male champions and become the voice of women and marginalised groups’.
In June, the six men arrested for the alleged kidnapping and assault of Ms. Lengkon pleaded not guilty to charges laid against them. The men were represented by Andrew Bal and Justin Ngwele who entered the plea on their clients behalf before Supreme Court Judge, Paul Georghegan. The trial began yesterday on Tuesday 30th August in the timely aftermath of a spate of violent attacks against women.
In August, there have been three highly publicised brutal attacks. Who knows how many other violent incidents have occurred that have not been recorded, especially when you consider that 60% of Ni-Vanuatu women experience violence yet only 2% access the formal justice system. It is an unfortunate reality that the majority of victims will suffer silently and not only will justice not be served, their suffering will be barely acknowledged.
The first brutal attack involved a female Canadian chef being strangled and beaten at Port Vila market house. Then a female Swiss community worker was beaten, raped and abandoned by her tour guide during a bush walk in Santo. The same week that the annual tourism and trade show Tok Tok Vanuatu was launched with the theme of ‘Discover Vanuatu, Making New Friends & Sharing Laughter’, a French tourist was beaten and robbed in front of two young children while visiting Lololima Cascades. She had to be medevac’d to Noumea for medical treatment.
Violence against women in Vanuatu has yet again taken the spotlight in front of international visitors. Is this how Vanuatu wants to be known? As a country where men viciously assault women? A more important question – does the status of women only become relevant when it’s in front of an outside audience and could result in a damaged reputation and potential economic loss? Is this the only time a meaningful discussion about violence can take place?
Ms. Lengkon’s assault received international attention because it was a direct result of her condemning transport drivers’ widely reported behaviour towards cruise ship passengers. In fact, during the march against violence, the Pacific Dawn hooted its horn to gesture its solidarity with an end to violence against women. The Deputy Prime Minister, Joe Natuman, voiced his anger at the time and said ‘Enough is enough. I hope we learn a lesson from this incident and that is to teach our people to respect the work you are doing for the industry.’
Please notice two things. Firstly he said that he hopes it teaches people to respect the industry, NOT WOMEN. Secondly, no one seemed to learn anything because Mr. Natuman is now offering a reward for valid information to capture the thugs who assaulted the French tourist at the cascades.
Mr. Natuman, who is also the Minister for Tourism stated, ‘This incident cannot be happening and especially at a time when the Government, the Private Sector and the Tourism industry are on the verge of opening ‘Toktok Vanuatu, which is naturally the biggest event organised to showcase our tourism products and services to the wholesalers, travel agents and writers’.
He further added that this was ‘not the attitude of the people of this country who have been well-known for their friendliness and smiles and were voted twice the happiest place on earth as per the Happy Planet Index.’
With the recent release of the 2016 UN Women report, Women and Children’s Access to the Formal Justice System in Vanuatu, Ms. Merilyn Tahi, the director of the Vanuatu Women’s Centre, does not share the same feelings. ‘There’s a high percentage of women that go through violence every day in this country so we cannot be smiling to say that we are the happiest country in the world,’ she said.
The UN Women report revealed that the Court Administrator receives an application for a Family Protection Order in the Port Vila registry every day and, on some days, up to 6 applications a day. Yet this still only represents a minority of women as 75% of the population live in the outer islands and have very limited access to the justice system. Often, it is simply too difficult and costly to seek justice.
As with many cases of violence against women, it is believed that assaults can be prevented if women modify their behavior. Despite significant progress being made in opening the dialogue on men’s violence against women in Vanuatu, it is still common for blame and responsibility to fall onto women for failing to adequately safeguard themselves against actions that they should apparently know to expect. However it is particularly disheartening when Vanuatu’s leading women’s organization, the Vanuatu National Council of Women (VNCW), partakes in this mentality of victim blaming.
In response to the French tourist that was beaten at the cascades, Leiasmanu Cullwick, VNCW Executive Director, suggested that women should be accompanied by adult males when travelling and in a letter to Daily Post, she stated that, ‘If a female tourist wants to go out into the bush and have fun by the waterfall, by herself with two kids or go wokabaot in the jungle for a few days with a male tour guide then be prepared to face the consequences. It’s nothing more than insanity at its best. This has nothing to do with Gender, Development, Constitutional Rights, Equality or Freedom of Movement. It’s about personal safety!’.
Like so many women (and men), Ms. Cullwick seems to have bought the lie that women can prevent these things from being done to them if they just take better, more sensible precautions. She suggested that women should travel with men but then at the same time, condemns those who do when they get raped! Furthermore by saying, ‘Prevention is better than Cure’, Ms. Cullwick also reinforces the idea that assault is less a choice made by perpetrators than it is something that occurs outside of themselves and are unable to resist.
Let’s be clear — the tour guide made the conscious decision to rape a woman who was under his guidance. It is not SHE who should be told that she should know better. It is HE, the perpetrator, who should know better. Didn’t anyone tell him that it’s unacceptable to violate someone for his own gain? Or was everyone too busy telling women to stop putting themselves in harm’s way?
The narrative that removes action and responsibility from perpetrators is not only insulting to women, but also insulting to men and reduces them to ape-like creatures who have no ability to make rational choices. It sends the message that these crimes are just compulsions and it is women who need to be sensible. Because seriously, what kind of woman goes to waterfalls with a bunch of kids anyway? That is insanity! And how dare Florence voice her opinion about anti-social behavior, particularly towards guests visiting our beloved country? Why would she illuminate that type of aggression that is so common in Vanuatu?
We need to stop making excuses for perpetrators of crime and normalizing victim blaming. It shouldn’t be seen as normal behaviour for men to be participating in the violation of anyone and to defend this as ‘typical’ is to argue that violence is inherent to men’s behaviour. Our men are better than this. Where else in the world can you get a flat tyre and guarantee that the next male walking past will help you fix it? That’s why it’s alarming that Vanuatu has one of the highest rates of violence in the world and men often get away with it.
Very few violence cases result in charges being laid, and of those charges, very few result in convictions. Those who are convicted, often serve a suspended sentence. When you consider the unequal balance of gender in parliament (0% women), judiciary (25%), police (13%), public solicitors (27%) and prosecution (43%) services, it is no wonder that it’s difficult to penetrate gender inequality, a root cause of violence, and effectively address the issues at hand. This is further compounded by our society where Custom and Christian values suggest that women are lesser beings who are expected to perform traditional gender roles (this means be quiet and stay home) and if not, they should expect a beating.
The trial for Florence continues for the rest of the week. Often women are told, even by those we expect to advocate for us such as the VNCW, that common sense is what’s needed to stop violence. It is time for that common sense to be directed at perpetrators of crime. Hopefully it will be delivered through our justice system and it’s as simple as this – if you do the crime, then you do the time. Good luck Florence.
The thoughts and opinions expressed in this article are by the editor of Sista, Yasmine Bjornum.