Vanuatu Women's Centre

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1. Summary

Research focus

In 2009 the Vanuatu Women’s Centre (VWC) undertook a national baseline study of the prevalence of violence against women aged 15 to 49, in partnership with the Vanuatu National Statistics Office. One of the most important findings from the 2009 national prevalence study was that almost every form of violence is more prevalent among young women, than those aged 30 years and over.

For the research findings detailed in this report, young women were defined as those aged 18 to 29, and girls were defined as under 18 years. The current research posed several questions to explore the experiences of young women and girls. What proportion of clients seeking help from VWC and its rural network of branches are young women and girls? What types of issues are they seeking help with, what types of violence are they facing, and how severe is the violence they are experiencing? The findings provide a confronting insight into the lives of many young women and girls in Vanuatu.

This research also explores how young women and girls come to know about VWC’s services, and what prevents them from seeking help. The findings add to existing evidence on the effectiveness of VWC’s integrated approach to preventing and responding to the serious problem of violence against women and girls.

Data collection and analysis

This research was undertaken in 2018 and 2019. Quantitative data was analysed from 5029 counselling sessions undertaken across Vanuatu by VWC’s national network of branches and rural committees against violence against women (CAVAWs) in 2015/2016. Qualitative data included 54 case studies on the experiences of young women and girls collected from July 2016 to May 2019. This was drawn from a total database of 121 case studies on clients of all ages documented over the same period by VWC and branch counselling staff as part of their regular monitoring and evaluation processes.

Data analysis draws on documentation in VWC’s annual progress and project completion reports, which describe specific outcomes due to VWC activities during 2015/2016 and the period leading up to it. A participatory data analysis workshop was held with 12 VWC staff, in addition to several meetings between researchers and key staff to ensure that findings were accurately interpreted.

Access to VWC Network services by young women and girls

There is strong evidence that VWC is effective at reaching out to young women aged 18-29.

  • More than half of the total counselling sessions (51%) were with young women and girls, including 46% with young women, and 5% with girls under 18 years.
  • Less than half of total counselling sessions (49%) were with women aged 30 and over.

Age is a key factor that determines why women and girls come to seek help from the VWC Network in the first place (new clients), and how likely they are to follow up with further counselling (repeat counselling sessions):

  • Overall, half of the new clients seen nationally were young women aged 18 to 29 (50%), 5% were girls, and 45% were women over 30.
  • Girls under 18 mainly seek help with child sexual and physical abuse, which makes up over 80% of counselling with this age group: 31.6% of counselling sessions with girls are for child physical abuse, and 48.6% are for child sexual abuse. In addition, 6% of all counselling sessions with girls are to seek help with domestic violence in their own intimate relationships (as distinct from rape and child sexual assault), and to make claims for child maintenance for children born before they turn 18 (4% of all counselling sessions with girls).
  • 71% of new young women clients aged 18-29 come for help with domestic violence, compared with 81% of new clients over 30. Most of the remainder of new young women clients and those over 30 are seeking with help with child maintenance. Very few women of any age sought help for rape or incest (2% of young women and 1% of those over 30).
  • Both younger and older women return frequently for follow-up counselling to have child maintenance claims dealt with, mainly due to delays in court processing, as well as new claims of child maintenance by women who are now separated from their de facto partners.
  • Overall, young women under 30 are less likely than older women to follow up with further counselling to address domestic violence and other related issues. There are several possible reasons for this, which are explored in detail in chapter 5.

One factor that contributes to the high proportion of young women in VWC’s national caseload is the higher prevalence of intimate partner violence in younger age groups (see chapter 3). Another is the positive impact of several milestones achieved in VWC’s prevention work between 2009 and 2015, which contributed to a gradual shift in community attitudes to the problem. Two key milestones were VWC’s 2009 national research on the prevalence of violence against women, and VWC’s efforts to implement the Family Protection Act (FPA) after it was passed by Parliament in late 2008.

Both milestones built on the prevention work that had been done over many years by VWC; they enabled VWC to successfully advocate with communities and their local leaders, law and justice sector staff and other stakeholders to engage in a range of community awareness/prevention and training activities. For example:

  • There was an increased demand for information from VWC, with more than 10,700 people approaching VWC and the branches to learn more about violence against women and associated issues from 2012 to 2016; this compares with 6,981in the previous 4 years, an increase of 55%. In addition, 417 law and justice sector staff were trained from 2012 to 2016.
  • Older women, parents, chiefs and male advocates (trained by VWC) were more likely to encourage younger women to seek counselling or directly assisting them to do so.
  • The findings of the prevalence study also resulted in increased targeting of young women by the VWC Network.

VWC’s experience indicates that public statements and actions by key male leaders can assist with challenging and changing prevailing norms, particularly where consistent messages on women’s and girls’ rights are portrayed by a range of leaders in a community, and repeated. Impact is increased when these statements are reinforced by actions, such as referrals by police to the VWC Network for counselling, prosecutions by law and justice sector agencies, successful claims for child maintenance, and assertive action by police to protect women and girls living with violence. All these actions increased prior to 2015/2016 due to long-term advocacy and awareness-raising by VWC.

The findings do not point to any one specific outreach or prevention strategy as being more effective than others. Rather, it is the combination of strategies in an integrated and comprehensive program of prevention and response – sustained over a period of time, and at multiple levels (individual, family, community, societal) – that has prompted more young women to access VWC Network services.

The nature of violence experienced by young women and girls

Many of the case studies document extreme forms of sexual violence, as well as confronting physical and emotional abuse and coercive control (including over young women’s movements, use of phones, and ability to see family and friends).

Several trends and themes emerged which reinforced findings from the quantitative database, and which staff indicated were representative of and common in the national caseload:

  • The length of time that young women and girls are enduring violence varies widely, but more than 1 in 4 (28%) endured the violence for over 5 years before being able to seek help.
  • The largest group of sexual assault offences against girls (39%) occurred when children under 18 were living in informal adoptive families away from their birth parents.
  • Case studies showed that patterns of violence, abuse and infidelity by husbands and partners develop very early in relationships.
    • Desertion after the first pregnancy or the birth of the first child emerged as a theme, including in custom/arranged marriages.
  • Case studies document the severe physical and mental health impacts faced by women and girls due to violence by husbands and partners.
    • Young women either attempted or contemplated suicide in 11% of the case studies.
    • 15% documented impacts on the children of young women living with male violence.

Positive evidence of VWC’s impact

There is strong evidence that the combined impact of VWC Network community outreach, counselling and advocacy work – a comprehensive and integrated approach – is preventing further violence and assisting young women and girls to access justice (secondary prevention):

  • 74% of the case studies document a positive outcome from the assistance provided by the VWC Network. Examples of counselling outcomes include empowering young women with the confidence to take some action – such as legal action including taking out a Family Protection Order; separating from her partner, or working within the relationship to try to stop the violence.
  • 37% of case studies demonstrated a positive response by the police and justice system, due to VWC’s advocacy and/or training – including timely and diligent responses to arrest and investigate crimes of violence, the removal of offenders in child sexual abuse cases, and providing assistance to women to recover children from partners and remove her belongings, among several others.  
  • There was some evidence of young women either returning to work following counselling, or setting up new small businesses (22% of case studies on young women).
  • For cases of sexual assault against girls, there was some evidence that positive action taken by VWC to protect girls and help them to deal with the trauma had influenced male leaders to allow the VWC Network to follow up by entering their communities for the first time to conduct awareness/prevention activities.
  • There were a few examples of young women clients – whose lives have changed following counselling and support from the VWC Network – becoming effective advocates against violence, and assisting relatives and neighbours to seek help.

There is strong evidence that VWC’s community awareness and education outreach is effective, with a positive impact on referrals and access to services by young women and girls:

  • In two-thirds (63%) of the case studies, the client either sought help directly from VWC following a VWC community awareness/prevention activity or was referred by someone else who attended, or she was referred by a person trained by VWC to assist women and girls living with violence (such as a chief, male advocate or police officer) who then made a referral to VWC, a provincial branch or a CAVAW.

Conclusion and recommendations

VWC’s 2009 baseline prevalence study found that places where VWC had been most active since its establishment had lower rates of physical and sexual violence by husbands and partners than places where VWC had been less active, and these differences were statistically significant (section 5.1.4). Although the current research does not investigate primary prevention, the findings show that VWC’s comprehensive, integrated and multi-stakeholder approach is effective at responding to violence against young women, and at reducing further violence (secondary prevention).

Each of the recommendations below emerged as a priority from the findings of the current research. However, several are similar to those made in VWC’s landmark prevalence study report published in 2011, and in a 2016 review by UN Women on Women’s and Children’s Access to the Formal Justice System in Vanuatu. Althoughmuch good progress has been made by a range of national and local stakeholders, many are still relevant and require further effort to speed up progress towards eliminating violence against women and girls in Vanuatu.

Prevention and response programs

  1. All community awareness/prevention, education, training and response programs to address violence against women and girls, by all stakeholders, must be explicitly based on a human rights and gender equality approach, and firmly grounded in the evidence base of what works to prevent and respond to gender based violence.
  2. All initiatives and organisations which aim to raise awareness or conduct community education and training to prevent violence against young women and girls, including those which carry out research, must ensure that there are clear referral protocols in place for young women, adult women and girls and boys who seek help during each prevention activity.
    • Victims/survivors should be referred to the national VWC Network, rather than to people or agencies who are not specifically trained to provide counselling and assistance on violence against women, and who are not receiving ongoing counsellor supervision.
  3. Youth training and other programs specifically targeting young women and men should include a focus on women’s and girls’ human rights and gender equality, sexual harassment, evidence of the high prevalence of violence against young women and girls in Vanuatu, its key features, and its devastating consequences for victims/survivors, their families, communities and the nation as a whole.
  4. Training to recognise signs of violence against girls and young women and to respond appropriately should be provided at all levels of the education system, with referral protocols in place, including refresher training as needed for both new and longer-term staff.
    • This should include: Ministry of Education officials; Provincial Education Offices; principals and teachers in primary, secondary and tertiary education sectors; parents and teachers associations; and school counsellors.
    • Training to recognise the signs in children (boys and girls) and youth who are impacted by violence against women at home should also be provided, with appropriate referral protocols in place.
  5. Male and female students must also have age-appropriate regular opportunities to learn about gender equality, human rights and violence against women and children, including the services that exist to help victims/survivors and their support networks.

Strengthening the legal and policy framework and access to justice

  1. The Vanuatu Police Force should, as a matter of urgency and in consultation with the VWC, review the practice of roundtables in cases of violence against women of all ages.
    • This is essential to ensure that the Vanuatu Police Force 2015 Family Violence Policy and Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) are applied consistently in every case.
    • Clear directions need to be given to all police officers that the Police Act does not override the provisions of the FPA and the SOPs.
  2. The Vanuatu Government should consider instructing the Law Reform Commission to undertake an urgent review of all aspects of marriage and family law matters, in order to develop a comprehensive family law that takes into account the prevalence, severity and impacts of violence against women and children. Different types of family situations should be considered as part of this review, including:
    • The current difficulties faced by women in de facto relationships with accessing child maintenance and in ensuring that these orders are enforced.
    • The current difficulties faced by married women who claim for family maintenance and who are separated from their husbands, as the husband has to be prosecuted first under the Maintenance of Family Act. This is a lengthy process for women, who must report to the police, and await investigation and prosecution, rather than being considered as an outright civil claim.
    • All other matters pertaining to marriage and family law, including relating to formal and informal adoption.
  3. The Vanuatu Government should consider introducing a national policy and law on sexual harassment, including workplace provisions.

Further research on violence against woman and girls in Vanuatu

  1. Donors should consider funding VWC, in collaboration with VNSO, to undertake a follow-up study on the prevalence of violence against women by 2024, using the WHO methodology that was adapted for the baseline Vanuatu study undertaken in 2009.
  2. Further research is also needed on the findings of this research regarding the high proportion of child sexual abuse cases occurring in adoptive families, and the implications of this finding for Vanuatu’s child protection provisions. This should ideally be explored in future national prevalence studies.
  3. Consideration should also be given to undertaking research on the prevalence of sexual harassment by age, and its impacts on young women and girls.
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