The VPride Foundation had a full day workshop on Human Rights on Monday 24th October 2016 at Paton Memorial Church (PMC) hall.
It was funded by the Secretariat of Pacific Community (SPC), the Regional Rights Resource Team through the Country Focal Officer in Vanuatu and supported by the Vanuatu Women Centre (VWC).
The workshop ‘Introduction to LGBTI Human Rights, SOGIE, Health and Gender Based Violence Workshop’ was the first between the Vanuatu Women’s Centre and VPride Foundation.
The VWC’s Ms. Vola Matas spearheaded the morning presentation with support from Ms. Merilyn Tahi and Jill Makikon. It included a group discussion about gender and equality and domestic violence.
Ms. Matas encouraged the VPride members to workshop in small groups and asked them to explore gender stereotypes. As the groups wrote down the expectations of what a male and female is supposed to ‘be’ and ‘do’ in Ni-Vanuatu society, it became evident that not conforming to gender roles was the root of discrimination.
‘What do we tell little boys? We tell them not to cry, we make them wear trousers, we give them blue clothes and make them play with trucks. If they do cry, we think they are weak, and if they don’t like trucks, we think there is something wrong with them,’ says Ms. Matas. ‘What do we tell little girls? We tell them to wear a dress, we give them pink things, we make them cook and clean. And what happens when they don’t do it? We beat them.’
Ms. Matas went on to explain that gender-based violence against women could be applied to violence against the LGBTI community in Vanuatu. ‘Many women get beaten by their husbands for not cooking or cleaning. Because you don’t fit into either the ‘male’ or ‘female’ category, you will probably understand the discrimination first-hand,’ said Ms. Matas to the VPride members.
‘Gender is a learnt thing. We already discussed what we teach boys and girls from a young age and how if we don’t conform to the norm, we face discrimination. We can unlearn this gender stereotyping. The community is bias and it must be understood that we all have a right to life and we are all God’s creations.’
Ms. Tahi added, ‘Anyone who fights his wife is not strong. That is weak. Women can carry a baby for nine months – that is strong.’ She also encouraged any member of the LGBTI community who experiences violence to seek support from the VWC.
Unfortunately if someone is in a same-sex relationship and experiencing violence, they are not protected under the Family Protection Act 2008 and have to apply under the penal code.
Ms. Anita Jowitt, a USP Law Lecturer, further discussed the law, culture and politics of homophobia in Vanuatu. She offered interesting insight into the history of the LGBTI community in Vanuatu and revealed that there has only been one case of violence against lesbians being prosecuted. Besides that, the LGBTI presence in court is almost invisible.
When the VPride Foundation was established in 2014, it was opposed by church leaders, government officials and chiefs. At the time, chairman of the Vanuatu Christian Council of Churches, Bishop James Ligo, said, ‘Vanuatu is a Melanesian country, with our diversity, we do not want to see the life that people are living in other parts of the world happening in our country. So VCCC is prepared to work with the chiefs, with the government, in order to see what can be done in addressing the situation.’
Despite the rhetoric, Vanuatu has in fact repealed criminalization of consensual homosexual acts with persons under 18 in 2006. It also supported the joint UN Human Rights Council statement in 2011 on ending acts of violence and related human rights violations based on sexual orientation and sexual identity.
The workshop ended with a visit from the Ministry of Health who discussed rights to health access and testing for HIV/STIs.
Gillio Baxter, who organized the workshop, says it was a successful day and is looking forward to making progress for the LGBT community in Vanuatu.
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