SOUTH TARAWA — The Republic of Kiribati (previously known as the Gilbert Islands) is a Pacific Island nation located near the equator and east of the International Date Line. It consists of one main island and 32 coral atolls, is home to 110,000 people and ranks 137 out of 188 countries on the Human Development Index 2015. Its constitution provides women with “formal equality” before the law, but it stops short of actually affording them all the benefits and opportunities of women’s empowerment in Kiribati required by the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).
The Constitution of Kiribati
This constitutional anti-discrimination provision does not include protection against sexual violence of any kind. In this case, it is technically legal in Kiribati to discriminate against women since “Kiribati law allows for evidence of prior sexual history to be admissible where it is deemed relevant to the reliability of the victim’s testimony, and common law rules that require proof of physical resistance in order to establish the absence of sexual consent are still applied.”
The following statistics are appalling and evident that women’s empowerment in Kiribati is restricted by the patriarchy: Seventy-three percent of women reported suffering from physical or sexual violence in some form or manner; one in five women (18 percent) from the ages of 15 to 49 had this type of violence by a non-partner; and at least 68 percent of women between the ages of 15-49 reported experiencing either type or both by an intimate partner.
Around 90 percent of women reported experiencing some form of controlling behavior, 31 percent of women experienced rape involving physical force, and 41 percent were forced into sexual intercourse with a partner because of fear. Through this, it is apparent that Kiribati has a high occurrence of intimate partner violence. The unfortunate circumstance is that this is a “social norm,” which dictates that women must be obedient to their husbands, results in violence against women being traditionally accepted.
The Ministry of Women, Youth and Social Affairs
In 2012, the government of Kiribati progressed in the right direction to support gender equality through its creation of the Ministry of Women, Youth and Social Affairs. This group has been responsible for the advancement and advocacy of women’s empowerment in Kiribati through its assistance against sexual and physical violence. In August of that same year, the Australian Government at the Pacific Islands Forum Leaders Meeting launched Pacific Women Shaping Pacific Development. It is a ten-year, $320 million program financed through Australian aid, which aims to improve the political, economic and social opportunities of Pacific women, specifically those in Kiribati.
Through this program, the Australian Government will spend approximately $9.9 million over 10 years on initiatives that support women’s empowerment in Kiribati. During the first three years, Australia planned to commit approximately $1.8 million, which was implemented from 2013 to 2016. In 2014, the Te Rau N Te Mwenga Act (Kiribati Family Peace Act) passed to officially end the violence against women as it includes necessary procedures in preventing and responding to domestic violence, directs survivors on how to be supported and cared for, and includes provisions to hold the offenders accountable for these misconducts.
The Consultation on Women’s Empowerment for a Culture of Peace and Non-Violence
From June 13th to 15th of 2013, the Consultation on Women’s Empowerment for a Culture of Peace and Non-Violence in the Pacific was held in Nadi, Fiji. This meeting was an inter-agency collaboration between the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN WOMEN) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Pacific Centre as part of the United Nations strategy “Delivering as One.”
The fundamental purpose was to enhance acknowledgement of culture in relation to gender and gender-based violence in the Pacific. Through this collaboration, a mutual understanding could be established in how culture can support efforts aimed at addressing gender-based discrimination and violence instead of excusing culture as the justification for these actions’ occurrences.
A Bright Future
Overall, women should be valued and respected no matter the normative rules of a culture or country. The irony of these efforts is that the government begins with these programs and projects to start the conversation for something that should be a basic human instinct to respect all, no matter the gender or the power play that exists. At this point in the 21st century, it’s appalling just how many countries exist with a patriarchy being so prevalent in women having no voice to combat injustices.
However, the government stepping up to create these programs is an advance in women’s empowerment in Kiribati and a bright omen for the future.
– Nicole Suarez