Violence against women and ICTs in the Pacific Islands region: An overview

This article is based on an interview with Sharon Bhagwan-Rolls, the
coordinator of FemLINK Pacific, a regional NGO that deals with women
and the media, with a specific focus on the role of women in
peace-building and conflict resolution.

Pacific Islands regions consists of 22 countries and territories1,
some of which, such as the islands of French Polynesia, are still
colonial possessions and lacking independent legislative and
administrative mechanisms. Of these 22, seven countries have ratified
the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination
Against Women, and a further three countries/ territories have
ratified it in conjunction with New Zealand (as they were or are
still New Zealand territories). These ten are the Cook Islands, Fiji,
Nauru, Niue, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tokolau,
Tuvalu and Vanuatu. In September 2009, the Tongan Parliament voted
overwhelmingly not to ratify CEDAW, with only one vote against the
decision. A press statement by the Prime Minister's Office says, “The
Legislative Assembly believed that to ratify CEDAW would cut across
our cultural and social heritage that makes up the Tongan way of
life. It would require the creation of fundamental changes for every
Tongan citizen to a way of life and social organisation that has
sustained Tonga to date.”
While claiming that this does not mean that the Tongan government
lacks respect for women's rights, one of the concerns was that it
would mean that women removing restrictions on women inheriting

Myriad issues in the Pacific Islands, including both VAW and ICT
development, are affected by the ongoing issue of colonisation in the
region and by the geography of the region. In terms of colonisation,
part of the region are claimed by the United States, France, the
United Kingdom and Indonesia, among others. In some cases, such as
the US involvement of Guam and Indonesia's claim over West Papua,
this involvement includes a heavy military prescence, which has
knock-on effects on perceptions of violence in general and violence
against women in particular3.
This is also true in independent countries such as Fiji, where the
civilian coup of May 2000 has had a direct impact on violence against
women, according to Sharon Bhagwan-Rolls, while the impact of the
2007 coup on VAW remains uncertain – though she asserts that it has
led to a deprioritising of the women's rights agenda4.

The geography of the region has had an obvious impact on ICT
development. Consisting of up to 20,000 islands, with two of the
world's three least populated nations being in the Pacific Islands
(Nauru and Tuvalu), the challenges in providing all parts of the
region with basic ICT infrastructure are immense. This is compounded
by the poverty and lack of resources of many of the island nations.
All these factors in turn have an impact on VAW – whether it is in
the resources needed to police existing legislation or in the
capacity to formulate legislation.

Both at an official level and among NGOs there is a high degree of
regional cooperation. In terms of the women's movement, the Pacific
Women's Network Against Violence was formed in 1992, initiated by the
Fiji Women's Crisis Centre. The network consists of 23 organisations
in 10 countries across the Pacific, and has been at the forefront of
pushing for greater legislative protection for women against
violence. However, there is a high degree of cultural tolerance for
VAW, for example, when the Fiji legislative assembly was faced with
the third reading of a bill on family law, initiated by the women's
movement, objections included:

  • Women are followers of
    men, the Bible says so. The Bill would upset God’s natural order
    by granting women equality and thereby encouraging them to leave
    their husbands;

  • The Bill was
    anti-Christian and anti-Fijian;

  • Only
    adultery was a valid ground for divorce in the Bible if at all,
    violence certainly was not;

  • It
    gave children rights over their parents which was against Fijian

  • It
    would destroy the essential nature of Fijian indigenous society;

  • It
    was against the chiefly system because illegitimate children would
    have rights to be traditional chiefs5.

on VAW has come under persistent scrutiny by women's rights
advocates, for being “outdated and treat(ing) women
with indifference despite the globally high rates of VAW in the
Pacific region”6.
In a press statement from March 2009, the Secretariat of
the Pacific Community Regional Rights Resources Team's gender and
human rights advisor P. Imrana Jalal commended three nations, Papua
New Guinea, the Republic of the Marshall Islands and Vanuatu, for
making progress in changing laws to be more in line with women's
aspirations to recognition of equality. However, of the three only
Vanuatu passed legislation on domestic violence, the other two
extending or improving legislation covering sexual assault.

June 2009, the UN Expert Group on Good Practices in
Legislation to Address Harmful Practices Against Women, meeting in
Addis Ababa, heard
about the current status of VAW legislation in the Pacific. That only
Samoa had made progress on legislation on domestic violence – it is
planning to pass legislation – indicates that although the women's
movement has suceeded in getting governments to recognise the
importance of VAW, there is a need to see stronger commitments across
the region7.

In this context, there has been little done to address the issue of
how ICTs either contribute to VAW or how they can help to provide new
spaces to empower women. One of the few initiatives that Sharon
Bhagwan-Rolls highlighted in an interview was that of the suitcase
radio, a mobile community radio run by FemLINKPACIFIC. This
initiative has been successful in empowering women, both in giving
them access to the airwaves and in providing information on a range
of issues that impact on women. However, the lack of a regulatory
framework for community radio in any of the Pacific Island nations
means that there are no guarantees that the model and lessons learned
from this experience will be repeated elsewhere.
Ms Bhagwan-Rolls says that this problem of applying appropriate
technology is just one of the challenges faced by the few people
doing work on VAW and ICTs in the Pacific.

SR: How have new communications technologies impacted negatively on
VAW - have there been new types of VAW (such as online stalking and
harassment), or new ways of monitoring women living with

SBR: I am beginning to hear more and more about the
use of mobile phone technology being used, for example, to document
women and girls in situations. These images are not used to raise
alerts but actually to “share the images” as a joke. This
phenomena needs more investigation, as it is uncertain how widespread
it is. In June this year, the Cook Islands News reported the
circulation of images of the alleged rape of a young woman, who was
only 12 years old.

How has the women's movement in the region reacted to these changes,
if any?

SBR: I have not noticed much in the way of women
addressing the linkage between violence and ICT – maybe because the
roll-out to this technology is slower than it is in the Asian region,
but I think the examples we have heard about the issues as
experienced by sisters in Asia need to serve as an early

SR: Has the women's movement been active in the
policy process on the use and regulation of ICTs? Could you give some

SBR: FemLINKPACIFIC is one of the few women’s NGOs
addressing ICT policy – very few have involved themselves either
pre- or post-WSIS. At FemLINKPACIFIC, we have focussed mostly on
community radio and broadcasting legislation, rather than the
internet or mobile phone policy. However, that is because the
government process does not involve women at all …and we have to
keep knocking on their door rather than them even considering the

There is a need to take this up at the regional level,
as there is a Pacific Digital Strategy in place and there is a need
to consider the impact of ICT content both from a cultural
perspective and also with social and gender analysis.

SR: How
has the women's movement used ICTs to help combat VAW?

Not too sure from the perspective of addressing domestic violence but
there is also the need to consider violence in its broadest form eg
in Fiji – sending messages of solidarity and other information. An
issue is cost for the women, as many of them do not have the
available funds to afford the luxury and there is no free

SR: What are the pitfalls in the women's movement's
use of ICTs (eg is there a problem of appropriate technology, use of
resources etc)?

SBR: Very much the issue of appropriate
technology and also access to resources. Women have to be seen as
more than passive users of the technology



to the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APWLD)
regional consultation and report
to the UN Special Rapporteur on
Violence Against Women, undated. 
It includes Tonga as a country that has ratified

in Islands Business, Tonga dismisses criticism of women's rights
, 25 Sept 2009

with Lisa Natividad, June 2008

with author for Accent of Women,
July 2009

Jalal, P., Some personal reflections on the Family Law Bill 2002,
at the 8th Australian Family Lawyers’ Conference (Fiji), 6 June,

example, Pacific laws on violence do not protect women: Jalal,
press statement by the Secretariat of the Pacific Community Regional
Rights Resources Team, 13 March 2009

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