I am a woman – not a commodity, not your plaything BUT a human being
Why are male children considered more valuable then female children in Vanuatu? Why are women traded like commodities? Why are women not able to access their rights?
Forced marriage, bondage, servitude – this sounds like a Middle Eastern country not the beautiful tropical paradise that tourists think it is. They know nothing about the pain we suffer.
Human rights are a part of our constitution; they are the laws that this country is built on. Sadly many women in Vanuatu do not know about their rights. If they do know their rights, it’s very difficult to access them.
In fact, did you know that Vanuatu Women’s Centre or the Family Protection Unit of the Vanuatu Police Force assist 92% of women and children who access the Magistrates Court?
Vanuatu has laws in place that should be sufficient to protect us but they are not being enforced. Sadly, even the people who are supposed to guide and protect us, such as our family, are often the ones causing us the most suffering. The formal justice system is irrelevant to them and custom law is put above our basic human rights.
The following story is about a woman who fell unexpectedly pregnant and was not given a choice with how to deal with the situation.
I have spoken to many women who have similar stories to this – this is the reality of just one of many.
I started a relationship with a boy when I was around 24 years old. Our relationship was fun and he treated me very well. He bought me things, took me out to eat at restaurants and shared his money with me. I thought he was the one for me – he was quiet and I respected his reserved demeanour. He always seemed so kind and respectful to me.
We didn’t live together or see each other all of the time because he worked on ships. After a year of dating I became pregnant. It took me by surprise, as I wasn’t ready to become a mother. When I told my boyfriend about my pregnancy he said, ‘Bae yumi mas kilim pikinini ia.’ I told him that even though I wasn’t ready to become a mother, I was not going to kill my child – I feel that all children are a gift from God.
I started thinking about my boyfriend’s reaction to my pregnancy and I started questioning if he really liked my baby and me or not. The next day he called me on the phone and said ‘Come down to the beach.’
He tried to force me to abort my baby
I went down to the beach and he gave me a 1.5 litre plastic bottle of local leaf medicine. He said, ‘Yu drink’. I knew that this was medicine to kill my baby. I placed my lips on the bottle but I didn’t want to drink it so I emptied it out on the sand. My boyfriend just stood there and watched me. He told me that every morning I should go and drink saltwater and a particular leaf to make my baby come out.
I left the beach feeling alone, numb, angry and completely shattered. At that moment I decided that it would be better for me to care for my child by myself.
However I still felt that it was my responsibility to maintain my relationship with my boyfriend for my baby’s sake. I also thought that maybe my boyfriend was in shock about the pregnancy and would change his mind eventually.
Soon I stopped working due to my pregnancy and found it difficult to get money to eat. I tried to call him a few times to ask him for help but he never answered.
A few weeks later I was at Independence Day celebrations and I saw my unborn child’s father with another woman. They seemed very intimate. I found out later that the two of them lived together and I was the other woman not her!
I decided it was a good time to tell my family that I was pregnant hoping that they would guide and comfort me and possibly confront the family of my unborn baby’s father.
My family kicked me out of our house
I told my family about my pregnancy and the whole situation. They were very angry and said that I could never return to my parents’ house. I had to stay at a very extended family member’s house who wasn’t even a blood relative since my close relatives would no longer accept me.
The whole time I was pregnant I never had any contact with my baby’s father, even when my beautiful baby boy was born. When my baby was more than 1 years old, his father tried to initiate contact with me again. I was very wary of him and did not trust him as I heard he had a baby girl with his other girlfriend. It was a few months after their baby was born that their relationship ended.
I was forced to return to my baby’s father
At the time the father of my baby said he had nowhere to go after his girlfriend kicked him out so he came back to me. His family forced me to go back with him as in custom if you give birth to a boy, the baby only has land rights through his father’s family.
His family than contacted my father and told him that they wanted me, as my baby was a son.
At the time I told my father that I didn’t want to go back to him because he was unfaithful to me before. I didn’t trust him enough but my father told me that I had to go because I had a small boy. He told me that if my baby were a girl it would be okay to stay because there wouldn’t be any competition for land rights between my son and my brothers and other male family members.
I just accepted what everyone was telling me. I had nowhere else to go unless I gave up my child to my child’s father’s family. That was not an option for me as I loved my baby and was worried about losing my son. I was broken.
My new home felt more like a prison to me than a home. I coped by convincing myself that maybe my baby’s father had changed and learnt his lesson after his other girlfriend kicked him out.
I tried to be the best wife I could be in order to move on in my new life. I washed and I cooked and I cleaned and I humbled myself so much to prove to him I was a good wife and a good mother.
It seemed that he just took everything I did for granted – the more I did the more he expected from me. My life was no longer mine but his to play with and control and twist into whatever shape he wanted.
My baby’s father would talk to his other girlfriend in front of me
We stayed in a rented house away from both of our families. It was still better than living with my in-laws but at times it was very hard as there was no one to run or talk to and share my heart with when there was a problem.
As soon as I started living with my baby’s father, he was texting and calling his other child’s mother. Sometimes he would talk to his other baby’s mumma on the phone at the kitchen table right in front of my face like I wasn’t even there.
I was afraid to speak up at first but after a while it got too much for me and I approached him and told him that I didn’t like this kind of behaviour.
Why did he force me to live with him while he was still maintaining a relationship with his other girlfriend and baby’s mother? I could not understand. His defence was that he had to talk to her because she was the mother of one of his children. However the conversations they were having were more than about the child they shared. Not once did he ever tell her that he had another woman – me.
Every time I approached the topic he always told me not to talk. ‘You no must talk too much to change my mind for what I want to do,’ he would say.
I stayed because I had no alternative – I had no control over mine or my baby’s situation. Sometimes I would feel very sad for long periods at a time. I couldn’t believe this nightmare was actually my life.
Without a warning, my baby’s father just left the house
After about 6 or 7 months of this hell he turned up at my work place and told me he was leaving me that very same night. He told me that when I finished work, I had to go and pack up all of his belongings, as he had to go and work in another Island. He also said that he would send money every payday for rent. He never did.
I felt like I was just going to give up everything in my life – I was forced to stay with him and now he just abandons us with no notice and no warning!
I could not cope or even provide for my child. I made the heart wrenching decision to send my baby to live with my mother in my home island for a while.
I had to send my baby away so I could work to provide for us
After I sent my baby to stay with my mother, my baby’s father called me asking about my son. I told him that since he left us with no notice, I had no choice but to send my baby away as I had no one to watch my son while I was at work. He became angry and demanded I send my baby to live with his mother (my baby’s paternal grandmother) in another island.
I was not happy with this and didn’t know what to do. I contacted my father and told him what my baby’s father was demanding. My father said they would need to make custom ceremony and pay for me and my child.
I relayed this information to my baby’s father and he swore and said ‘Your father wants a fucking marriage?’. I found this very disrespectful to my family and me.
When I told my father what he said, my dad cried and said ‘This is finished now. You won’t have anything to do with this man again’. I felt angry with my father, as he was the one who forced me to return to a heartless and cruel man in the first place. He still wouldn’t let me return home either!
After 3 years passed I left the island I was living in and went to the capital to study – this was the same place where my baby’s father was living.
I was very focused on my school and forgotten about my baby’s father altogether. Occasionally I would pass him in the street and he would try to come back to me but I never let him. I believe I only had the power to do as I was living in the capital. In the islands, custom is seen as law and men control custom. Unfortunately men don’t always have women’s best interest at heart…….
I have been silent. Many times I have accepted things in my life as it’s the only way I could survive as I had no real support from anyone.
Although it’s not easy there is HOPE and HELP
I’d heard my friends talk about the law and human rights but I never fully understood it. I also saw many of my friends seek assistance from the police and the Vanuatu Women’s Centre but never saw any changes in their lives, just false hope. But at least it’s a step towards justice.
‘Oli talem yumi ol woman se yumi kat ol raet lo filim sef, long jusam patna mo rod blong laef blong yumi, be ol raet ia yumi no save tajem from ol man oli sapotem man nomo’ (‘They tell us that as women we have rights such as the right to feel safe, to choose who and when we marry and to make our own choices in our lives but we can’t seem to access these rights’)
I want to encourage mothers in this situation that there is hope BUT you have to be strong. There are laws to protect us but there is also custom and religion. Sometimes custom and religion is used to control us. Remember – just because custom exists it doesn’t mean it’s legal.
Please search for those who will support you and please support others that need support. As sisters and mamma’s it is only us that understand the life of other women.
If you don’t know what your rights are or where to access them, you can find them at:
As told to Niki Taiwia, a local humanitarian journalist, who 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!’