The Maintenance of Children Act (MCA) in Vanuatu, set up in 1966, currently mandates a child support fee of VT1,000 per week per child, amounting to VT4,000 per month.

However, human rights activists argue that this amount is insufficient to meet the needs of families and children today.

Founder and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Vanuatu Human Rights Coalition, Anne Pakoa, has labelled the Act as antiquated and insufficient in meeting the needs of modern-day child rearing.

“The Maintenance of Children Act is an old law that needs to be revised not only because it’s too old, but that law itself is a mockery as we see it,” said Pakoa.

She pointed out the big difference between living standards when the law was enacted and the current economic reality.

“Comparing the living standard today to when it was back then when the law was created, nowadays is very expensive,” she said. She further stressed that as children grow, their needs evolve, necessitating a corresponding adjustment in support provisions.

”The VT1,000 per week could be seen as not that expensive, causing a man to play around and have multiple children,” Pakoa remarked, advocating for a substantial increase in child maintenance payments to VT4,000 a week, VT16,000 a month.

She urged the Government to revise the law to ensure that children without paternal support receive adequate provisions.

Yasmine Bjornum, founder of Sista, a feminist organisation, shared insights from a recent “Single Mamas Forum” involving over 40 single mothers. They found a significant issue with the current MCA: it only covers unmarried women, leaving unmarried men as primary caregivers without legal support.

Ms Bjornum suggested abolishing both the MCA and the Maintenance of Family Act to streamline legislation.

She emphasised the need for further research, especially with the rise of single-headed households due to seasonal worker schemes and the difficulty of enforcing support for children from parents living overseas.

According to her, during the forum, many single mothers expressed challenges in their living arrangements and daily lives. They struggle with financial burdens, lack of support from family or the child’s father, time management issues, and employment difficulties. Despite these challenges, the mothers expressed deep love for their children and a determination to provide for them.

Single mothers in Vanuatu face stigma and discrimination, even though the country has one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancies in the Pacific. There is no formal social welfare system to support them, relying instead on family, chiefs, and community assistance.

Under the current MCA, single mothers have the right to some support from their child’s father. However, the Act has not been updated since 1970, leading to inadequate support and procedural challenges.

Key recommendations from research include integrating and reforming child maintenance legislation, improving data collection, and making application processes more efficient.

Elsie Molou, Communication and Advocacy Coordinator of Sista, told the Vanuatu Daily Post that in 2021, Sista collaborated with the Ministry of Justice, Human Capacity Development International (HCDI), and the Vanuatu Law Reform Commission to conduct research advocating for the reform of the MCA. Their focus was particularly on addressing the lack of support for single-headed households.

The report highlights the challenges faced by single mothers in Vanuatu regarding the MCA and broader gender equality issues in law and policy.

Despite the government’s commitment to reform through the National Gender Equality Policy 2021-2030 (NGEP), the MCA remains outdated, with provisions unchanged since its inception in 1966.

Echoing Ms Bjornum’s stance, Ms Molou stated that this Act differs from the Family Maintenance Act, raising questions about streamlining both acts for greater efficiency.

“Single mothers encounter difficulties accessing child maintenance due to limited awareness, lengthy application processes, and societal stigma.

“Additionally, the amount provided under the MCA, set at VT 1,000 per week per child, does not adequately address the rising cost of living and the diverse needs of children,” she said.

She told the Vanuatu Daily Post that recommendations from single mothers include amending the MCA to increase maintenance payments, simplifying the application process, and enforcing penalties for non-payment.

“Efforts are also needed to raise awareness and make the MCA more accessible through translation into Bislama and awareness campaigns.

“Moreover, communities must combat stigma against single mothers by establishing support groups and safe spaces for sharing information and experiences,” Ms Molou added.

The stigma faced by single mothers poses a significant barrier to accessing child maintenance. As one mother expressed, the current maintenance amount is insufficient to cover basic needs, let alone additional expenses such as school fees and childcare.

In response, Albert Nalpini, Human Rights Coordinator under the Ministry of Justice and Community Services (MoJCS), acknowledged that the legislation concerning child maintenance is due for review to ensure it aligns with today’s standards of living.

He disclosed that despite efforts by civil society teams in previous years, the task remains unfinished.

Acknowledging the high cost of living today, Nalpini stressed that VT1,000 per week is inadequate to support a child’s upbringing through child support.

“Reviewing this legislation amongst others, is a priority for the government this year,” he said.

Nalpini emphasised that regardless of the adequacy of the maintenance fee, both parents share the responsibility to care for their child.

The call for reform of the MCA resounds across various sectors of Vanuatu’s society.

Human rights activists, governmental bodies, and Civil Society Organisations unite in advocating for a legal framework that adequately supports single-parent households and upholds the rights of children.