This year Vanuatu was voted the fourth happiest country in the world as per the Happy Planet Index. The country is renown for its smiling faces and friendly people, and the theme of this year’s annual tourism and trade show Tok Tok Vanuatu was ‘Discover Vanuatu, make new friends and share laughter’ to promote this image.
But in August, just as Tok Tok Vanuatu was about to take place, three expatriate women in Vanuatu were physically attacked within a couple of weeks of each other. First, a French tourist was beaten and robbed at Lololima Cascades, just outside of Port Vila, in front of two young children. Police failed to turn up at the scene and the woman was later airlifted to New Caledonia before returning to France for further medical treatment.
Then a French Canadian chef was beaten and strangled at the downtown Port Vila markets. She said she had been involved in a minor car accident minutes earlier and after peacefully exchanging insurance details with the taxi driver, a random passerby began to punch her in the head. Despite being surrounded with bystanders, no one came to her assistance and she is now afraid to return to the markets.
In Santo, a Swiss community worker was on a mountain-hiking trip from Big Bay to the North West Coast. She was brutally assaulted, raped and abandoned by her own tour guide. The suspect is remanded in custody.
The spate of attacks also happened to occur just before trial began on the 30th August of the six taxi and bus drivers accused of allegedly kidnapping and assaulting 30-year-old Florence Lengkon. Earlier in March, Ms. Lengkon had made comments on social media regarding the aggressive behavior of bus and taxi drivers after they had thrown rocks at a bus full of tourists. Shortly after she was kidnapped and beaten, sparking the largest peaceful protest against violence in Vanuatu.
Three of the drivers – Ben Koro, Glen Kovoi, and Charley Kasuali – were later acquitted on charges of intentional assault due to a lack of evidence. This is despite the fact that the Bus and Taxi Association President admitting there was over 60 drivers at the wharf at that time of the incident and yet none of them stepped forward to identify who had struck Ms Lengkon. The high profile case will resume on the 28th September for the other defendants.
Why aren’t more leaders speaking out?
Alarming statistics reveal that 60% of Ni-Vanuatu women will experience violence in their lifetime. Within a space of a few days, three non-local women experienced the brutality that many Ni-Vanuatu women are familiar with. Disturbing photos of the victims with bruised faces and blackened eyes made newspaper headlines, bringing the issue of violence to light, only to be quickly quelled back into the shadows by the deafening silence of those in authority.
Barely a handful of public figures spoke out regarding the spate of violent attacks against women – one was Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Tourism Mr. Joe Natuman who was enraged that these incidents occurred during the same week as Tok Tok Vanuatu, which attracted 56 sellers and 42 buyers from Australia, New Zealand, New Caledonia, China, Italy, USA and Fiji.
At the time, he told the Vanuatu Daily Post, the national newspaper, ‘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 Tok Tok Vanuatu, which is naturally the biggest event organised to showcase our tourism products and services.’ Although Mr. Natuman’s condemnation of violence may be sincere, it was clear that his major concern was how it would impact the tourism industry rather than the women whose rights had been violated.
Executive of Vanuatu’s peak women’s organization engages in victim blaming
The next leader to speak out was Ms. Leiasmanu Cullwick, the Executive Director of the Vanuatu National Council of Women (VNCW), who appeared on a nightly radio broadcast where she stated that women should be accompanied by men when moving around and called on the Ministry of Tourism to ask people visiting Vanuatu to ‘behave properly’.
Ms. Cullwick’s remarks drew heavy criticism from members of the public including principal of TNC Pacific Consulting, Ms. Tess Newton Cain who slammed Ms. Cullwick in a letter to the Vanuatu Daily Post stating that ‘I consider gender-based violence to be the biggest development challenge that faces our country, as is the case for numerous other countries in our region. We should expect representatives of national peak organisations to be lead advocates for change in this area. What I heard on Wednesday evening left me both saddened and angry if it is what this organisation considers to be advocacy of an appropriate type.’
Former Ombudsman and former Executive Director of VNCW, Ms. Marie-Noelle Ferrieux- Patterson, also wrote a letter and said, ‘The recent letters from VNCW Executive Director Leiasmanu Cullwick show, rather sadly, just how long there is still to go for some women to free themselves from the confines of out-dated attitudes and expectations that a (largely) paternalistic society has imposed upon them.’
The letters that Ms. Ferrieux- Patterson is referring to are a series of letters written by Ms. Cullwick to the Vanuatu Daily Post. Ms. Cullwick continuously reiterated that the VNCW’s stance was for all female tourists and residents to be ‘mindful of their actions’. Her first letter could have easily been mistaken for a church sermon had it not been for the final paragraphs when she states, ‘The world You are sovereign over so often seems out of control, but Lord help us as adults to always be mindful of our actions and be cautious in all things that we do whether they be frolicking in the sunshine, trekking through the bushes or skiing on snow.’
The following letters written by Ms. Cullwick share the same victim blaming and biblical rhetoric. In one letter she suggests that there is no culture of misogyny in Vanuatu and that it’s a ‘immature, foreign idea’ and reiterates that if female tourists aren’t ‘mindful of their actions,’ then they must ‘be prepared to face the consequences.’ In reference to the woman who was assaulted and robbed at the waterfalls in front of two young children, she again warns, ‘There are many beautiful tourist spots for all to enjoy but if you’re mad enough to take the risk to venture out on your own then face the consequences.’
VNCW Executive repeatedly tells women to be ‘mindful of their actions’
Rather than condemning the actions of the perpetrators and addressing how to curb the escalating acts of violence against women, Ms. Cullwick continued to state that the ‘VNCW does not blame anyone’ and ‘We work together with our men to ensure Vanuatu remains a peaceful country allowing all people from all countries around the world to come visit, set-up businesses and enjoy the beauty God has created.
Not only does the Executive Director of Vanuatu’s leading women’s organization refuse to acknowledge the criminal behaviour of men who violate women, but Ms. Cullwick also chooses to prioritize protecting the image that Vanuatu likes to portray of itself as a ‘friendly’ tourist destination rather than protect women’s rights and address the root issue of violence.
In another letter, Ms. Cullwick again calls for all tourists to be ‘mindful of their actions’ before congratulating the Tourism Office and local businesses for promoting tourism activities. She then says that ‘If you don’t want to visit Vanuatu that is your democratic right’ before finishing her letter off with ‘Prevention is 100% better than cure! End of story.’
In her final letter to the Vanuatu Daily Post, Ms. Cullwick calls her critics discussion on victim blaming as ‘continued nonsensical anonymous ridiculous train of thoughts’, ‘diabolic insolence’ and ‘warped mentality’, before daring to ask, ‘What have leading women’s support and advocacy groups around the world have to say to VNCW?’
These kind of inflammatory comments not only undermine the women’s organization that Ms. Cullwick represents but also insults the women she is supposed to advocate for. Rather than demanding that these men should face justice, Ms Cullwick says she ‘doesn’t blame anyone’ and yet she continuously emphasises the responsibility women have to protect themselves against acts of violence.
By not taking a stand against these men, it also reinforces the conditioning that it’s acceptable to violate a woman if she doesn’t take the appropriate measures to safeguard herself.
Despite well-meaning intentions, even the Deputy Lord Mayor tells women how to behave
The Deputy Lord Mayor, Leimara Malaki, has also appealed to young girls and women not to dress in provocative clothing, indulge in alcohol drinking with boys, walk in the night alone or be at home alone as it leaves them vulnerable to being raped. Despite her best intentions, the underlying message is that it’s up to a woman to ensure she doesn’t get raped instead of telling men NOT to rape.
Ms. Malaki did call for the Vanuatu government to strengthen police resources so they are better equipped to perform their duties but as with Ms. Cullwick, she stressed the importance of Vanuatu’s image as a happy place and how these incidents have tarnished it. She said, ‘Tourism is the main income earner for Vanuatu and Port Vila prides itself as the doorway to the tourist’s heaven here but the escalation of violence in town is painting a grim picture for the tourism industry.’
Again, the main concern seems to be about how these attacks will affect the tourism industry rather than the wellbeing of the victims.
The majority of cases filed in the Supreme Court relate to violence against women
We forget that almost one in three women will be sexually assaulted before they reach the age of 15 and that most sexual abuse cases in Vanuatu are incestuous. A recent report by UN Women revealed that majority of criminal cases filed in the Supreme Court relate to violence against women and children and in particular sexual violence against girls. This is despite only 2% of women and children who experience violence actually accessing the formal justice system.
What more can these women do to protect themselves in their very own homes? What more could these expatriate women have done to protect themselves as they explored waterfalls with young children and gone shopping at the local markets? It seems regardless of where a woman is – at home or outside of it – she is still able to get attacked and therefore should not be blamed for it. It is not up to the women to protect themselves – it is up to men to stop feeling entitled to do as they please.
Only last week, The Independent newspaper reported that a man and a male student who raped a girl under the age of 15 were sentenced to three years in jail before having their sentence entirely suspended. They are now walking freely and suggested in their reports that it was the girl who was making inappropriate sexual advances.
The Vanuatu Women’s Centre (VWC), a non-government organization that is 100% funded by Australia and provides counselling, workshops, training, information and legal services on violence against women, told the Vanuatu Daily Post that the main reason that women do not report alleged rape and assault is victim blaming.
‘The victim is always blamed because of the way they dress, or being at the wrong place at the wrong time or getting drunk. Women do not deserved to be raped. Most of the times people blame the victims and not the perpetrator who should be blamed because of his abusive or violent behaviour.
A girl or a woman has the right to go where ever she chooses to go, we have the right to be safe and the right to walk around freely as enshrined in the Constitution.
We should blame the perpetrator and hold them responsible for their abusive actions and girls and women should never be blamed. It’s about time men start to respect women and girls because all these violence and sexual assault that is happening is just because the men are not respecting them.’
Since these incidents occurred last month, there have been reports that several other expatriate women have been victims of attempted rape and assaults – both of these incidents have allegedly occurred at resorts, where a reasonable duty of care is expected. Who knows how many other assaults have occurred that have not been reported in the local communities?
We need more people in positions of authority speaking out
In the meantime, no other public figure holding a significant position in authority has spoken out. Considering that Vanuatu considers itself a Christian country with Melanesian values, it would seem appropriate for church leaders, chiefs, politicians and community leaders to condone these acts of violence against women.
When Justice Richard Chetwynd acquitted the three men accused of intentional assault on Florence Lengkon due to inadmissible evidence as none of the 60 witnesses present stepped forth to identify who had hit her, he said the silence was ‘an indictment’ on our society.
Sadly this collective silence is filtered from the very top. Our very own leaders don’t bother to stand up and speak out against violence. How many more rapes and assaults need to occur before we say enough is enough? How many more times will we blame women for getting raped and assaulted?
We need more people speaking up – not just once, but every time an assault or rape occurs, and even when it hasn’t. Let’s keep talking about it until we are conditioned to believe that rape and violence is wrong and that the shame and blame is for the perpetrators to carry, not the victims.
By Yasmine Bjornum