On the heels of the alleged sexual harassment allegations within the Vanuatu Police Force (VPF), this newspaper was forced to ask ‘Are Women Safe in the VPF?’

Attempts to extract an official comment on the safety of female police officers from the Vanuatu Police headquarters were futile. According to the VPF Communications Officer, Jane Borenga, the Police will not comment.

Is this an isolated incident or are there more disturbing stories that are hidden inside the walls of the institution that is supposed to be the beacon of justice and public trust? Truth is, we don’t know.

The allegation is sexual harassment. According to the Community Educator of the Vanuatu Women’s Centre (VWC), Lynn Rose Tule, sexual harassment is a gateway to more serious sexual crimes like rape.

“(Is sexual harassment serious?) It’s very serious, if he is harassing her all the time it can lead to sexual affair and it can lead to domestic violence if the husband knows what’s happening because he can beat her up or take her away from her job,” she said.

The Community Educator explained that sexual harassment can be anything from inappropriate emails, gestures or touching and it should never be entertained by the victim or the company.

“It’s not OK, it’s against the law,” she said. “If the workplace sees it as a minor thing, but you don’t accept it then maybe the workplace doesn’t see it as important to address it as an issue because if it happens with one female in that office, maybe it can happen to someone else also.”

Why don’t women report sexual harassment?

“Because if she is entertaining it, they ask her to increase her salary and sometimes they accept it and sometimes they don’t accept it, because maybe she is just entertaining it for the increase of salary, because the salary she earns is not much,” Ms Tule explained.

The Community Educator drew her answers from real life case studies of women in Vanuatu who have come forward to the VWC.

She added that aside from the money, another common reason is threats of losing her job or threats of physical abuse if she doesn’t obey.

Sexual harassment in the office

“One of the sexual harassments, is one of how men see a woman as a sexual object- ‘I can use her like this, I can sexually harass her, I can say these bad words to her’. I would like to say that it’s not acceptable in any workplaces,” Ms Tule said.

VWC stated that companies have a major role to play in protecting women in the office and should adopt strong countermeasures in its policies when it comes to sexual harassment.

“Companies have a big role to play in addressing gender-based violence in the workplace because it’s something that is affecting women in the workplaces because they see women as sex objects, not seeing them as workers in the company but sex objects – ‘I can do this for you and I can give this to you,’ just to take her attraction, it’s all about sex, when she rejects it that’s when threats come in,” VWC said.

VWC’s Advice to Women

“Sexual harassment is not accepted in the workplace because it can lead to different things and it can affect your employment, your family, if the cause of this sexual harassment leaks into your family life it could cause separation and affect your kids,” VWC said.

Ms Tule, on behalf of the VWC, encourages more women to report their abusers so it doesn’t destroy their families and negatively impact their children.

The VWC has a tollfree number for counselling which is 161, and also conduct one on one counselling for women who are being harassed or abused in the office.

“It can be a small inappropriate gesture, if you’re making a woman feel uncomfortable, that could be a form of sexual harassment, which will then escalate,” she said.

“Sexual harassment should never be entertained.”

Human Rights Violation

Chief Executive Officer and Founder of Vanuatu Human Rights Coalition, Anne Pakoa, added women who are being sexually exploited in the office should never remain silent.

“Do not be silent if anything is happening to you, any behaviour that is meant to violate someone’s happiness or peace in the workplace is a conflict, we don’t need to know why he did that, all we need to do is penalize him,” she said.

In response to the Police’s silence, Ms Pakoa said: “The police really need to come forward and they need to tell the truth, they need to inform us on what type of sexual activity, is it verbal, physical? From a public point of view, you’re a beacon of peace so how can you violate your own workmate?”