As a feminist organisation, we believe that women have a right to freely express themselves, whether through dance, clothing or verbal expression. This is reflected in our constitution where Vanuatu recognizes an individual’s fundamental right to move and express themselves freely. If a young woman over the age of 18 decides to participate in a dance competition at a nightclub, this is a choice she freely makes.

As part of our work, we are obliged to inform young women of the reality of living in a society where there are certain things they may do that may open them up room for criticism. This is why we are committed to sharing information to empower women to make informed choices and to generate dialogue on the underlying issues that stops us from advancing gender equality.

This includes pushing back on the notion that if a woman doesn’t behave or dress a certain way (or in this case – dance a certain way), then this justifies any type of abuse she faces. In relation to this particular incident where young women are being bullied and shamed online from participating in a dance competition, using the reasoning that “If she twerks in public, what did she expect?” we want to remind people that this line of reasoning is often the same one used by rapists to justify rape – “She was wearing a short dress and was asking for it” or men who hit their wives – “If she didn’t talk too much, I wouldn’t have hit her.” There is some kind of presupposition that women are actually responsible for any danger she faces because of she what she wore, said or did.

In reality we know this is not true – a woman will be sexualised, objectified and abused REGARDLESS of what she is wearing or doing. Take a look at the statistics of rape victims in Vanuatu – most of the perpetrators are their own family members. In this case, we are disturbed that people are more outraged by the dance moves rather than the fact that some people are posting and circulating photos of these girls in unflattering angles without their consent. Just because she consented to participating in a dance competition, it DOES NOT mean she consented to having her images being circulated online.

The energy that could be used to hold the people accountable for participating in bullying and what we constitute as image-based sexual abuse is instead being diverted into shaming young women for being confident in their bodies and expression. It begs the question – what is actually more harmful? What is more dangerous to society? A girl dancing suggestively – causing zero harm to any individual – or a body of people sharing and commenting on images posted online without consent, which has serious consequences for the victim, which may include self-harm, isolation and suicide?

In this case, we are struggling to rationalize the cyber bullying the young women are facing in the name of ‘Christian principles’ and ‘traditional values’, when we have much bigger issues that Vanuatu needs to deal with including rape and incest. It is also time to recognize that women are multifaceted – that we are not just wives and mothers whose sole purpose in life is to support our families and manage the household. We are also individuals and some of us like to dress up, go dancing, drink kava, etc, AND go to church and help our community. It is unfair that we have one standard for how women should behave and another for men.

To end, if these dance competitions are to take place in the future, the venues have a responsibility to ensure the young women’s safety and protection before, during and after the event. This includes offering support if the women’s lives have been impacted from the fallout of these events. Parents must ensure their underage children are not attending nightclubs while young women who wish to participate in the competition must be fully informed of the consequences of doing so, especially in this age of social media.