Implementing domestic violence legislation: Early days in Kiribati

By Romulo Nayacalevu, Senior Human Rights Adviser, Secretariat of the Pacific Community By Romulo Nayacalevu, Senior Human Rights Adviser, Secretariat of the Pacific Community

On international human rights day in 2014, the President of Kiribati, His Excellency Anote Tong, signed the Te Rau n Te Mwenga Act into law.

Translated, this means family peace, but the process leading to the creation of the legislation was conceivably less than peaceful and often confrontational. However, the legislation is a progressive and modern law of its time, confronting entrenched behaviours and attitudes around domestic violence.

Domestic violence is often practised with impunity in our societies because of the stigma attached to it and the culture of silence that consigns it to the private sphere of the home. Culture and religion have been used as a shield to keep discussions of domestic violence at bay. And yet within the same domestic sphere are the cries of women and children, the survivors of domestic violence demanding equality before the law and recognition of their basic human rights to live a life of dignity, free from violence and fear.

Alarming statistics reveal a high prevalence rate of domestic violence in most Pacific countries[1] and the stigma and culture of silence around domestic violence perpetuates its prevalence, for family expediency and not shaming the family name or community. However, domestic violence is a criminal act in the home and now a specific criminal offence in various Pacific jurisdictions as a result of progressive legislation. In Kiribati, the Te Rau n te Mwenga Act will address the crime of domestic violence, which, according to the Kiribati Family Health and Support Study[2] conducted in 2010, puts Kiribati high on the prevalence rate of domestic violence in the Pacific region.

Prior to the Te Rau n te Mwenga Act, criminal charges for domestic violence fell under broad criminal laws, which were often inadequate to address the multifaceted layers of violence. Further, the broad penal provisions, based on archaic legislation inherited from the colonial government, were insufficient. Courts would issue restraining orders, which could mean that the victim would be forced out of the house as it is not registered in her name, or the perpetrator would refuse to provide financial support as a result of the restraining order, resulting in further victimisation of the survivor.

Other practical realities that would further disadvantage a complainant from obtaining relief from the courts. However, this new law is not just about confronting the crime of domestic violence with penal and financial sanctions; it also provides recourse to survivors of violence to seek immediate legal protections in the form of temporary and permanent protection orders, including restraining orders, removal of perpetrator from the home, and financial orders for maintenance and upkeep of the family.

Domestic violence is estimated to cost economies around the world a significant part of their GDP through loss of earnings, loss of productivity, and the associated costs of treatment, investigation and criminal due process, let alone its toll on human suffering.

For small Pacific economies, the burgeoning cost of violence on the economy is detrimental to economic productivity and development. In Kiribati, the effectiveness of the law through this new act to address domestic violence is in its early days and yet progressive steps have been taken by the government to ensure compliance and its effectiveness. Significant resources were committed by the government of Kiribati and development partners, including the United Nations entities, the World Bank, Australian Aid and SPC’s Regional Rights Resource Team (RRRT), to conduct nation-wide consultations about the DV law, its implications and consequences. There was also training for police officers and key stakeholders on the new law, including their duties and responsibilities. Parliament, when debating the law in 2014, recognised the key objectives for the law [Section 3], which include;

  1. the safety and protection of all persons, including children, who experience or witness domestic violence;
  2. support and redress for all victims of domestic violence;
  3. programmes for victims of domestic violence to ensure their recovery to lead a safe and healthy life; and
  4. enforcement of court orders issued in order to stop acts of domestic violence.
  5. domestic violence, in all its forms, is unacceptable behaviour and is a crime;
  6. that domestic violence occurs and affects all sectors of the community; and
  7.  that domestic violence is best addressed through a coordinated legal and social response of assistance to victims and measures to prevent violence and, in certain cases, may be the subject of appropriate intervention by the court.

Further, Parliament [Section 3(2)] noted that;

With high level political commitment in addressing the prevalence of domestic violence, the challenging journey ahead for Kiribati is ensuring the effective implementation of the legislation. Coordination of the act is crucial to ensure that there is oversight on the roles that stakeholders are required to perform under the act. Consequently, the Ministry of Women, Youth and Social Affairs was given this coordination responsibility. Such coordination is best monitored by an implementation plan. Kiribati had earlier endorsed a shared implementation plan put together by the government and United Nations entities relating to eliminating sexual and gender based violence but a specific implementation plan for the Te Rau n te Mwenga Act is being pursued with SPC RRRT and UN Women. This specific plan is crucial to addressing the implementation of the law and the allocation of financial and technical resources, as well as to ensuring that holistic intervention is not overlooked by an overconcentration of resources on a particular area.  

Practical first steps include understanding the workings of Te rau n te Mwenga Act which ‘binds the Republic’ (section 9) and promotes awareness and education across government departments and ministries (section 25), to ensure the ‘prevention’ and ‘reduction of violence’, as well as facilitating appropriate interventions to ‘help victims of violence’ (section 25(2)). Further, the act establishes annual reporting mechanisms which includes the Minister for Women reporting to parliament (section 44(3), relevant authorities (section 31 (4)) and the advisory council, (section 31) on the implementation of the act, and the police commissioner providing an annual report to the Minister for Women detailing police responses and interventions on domestic violence. The minister will then present this report to parliament.

The act obligates a fundamental change in the accepted roles of the police when it comes to domestic violence. From being unwilling to interfere in cases of ‘domestic disturbance’ and limiting their response to advice and counselling, they will now be mandated to act on domestic violence reports and failure to do so ‘constitutes misconduct for the purposes of section 412 of the Police Service Act’ (section 30 (4)). It is envisaged that further police training on the act is essential to ensure that the police are aware of their duties and powers under Part 4 (sections 26–30) and that they must act upon receipt of a domestic violence report to the stations.

A duty of care is established for health care professionals and social services providers in terms of their responses to domestic violence under the act (section 32), including the development by the Ministry of Health of key standard operating procedures on domestic violence. While the health care providers have in the past attended to victims and survivors of violence brought to hospitals, this act creates a legal duty to act through treatment and referral of survivors to appropriate authorities and services (section 32 (1)). The Ministry of Health, under its own standard operating procedures, also documents domestic violence cases received by the hospitals and, crucial in the next period of implementation, is the effective coordination between the Ministry of Health to other key stakeholders, including the police, counsellors and courts. Monitoring the trend of cases received by the hospitals and health centres is also crucial to properly document the trend of domestic violence post-Te rau n te Mwenga.

For their part, the Ministry of Education made great progress in creating awareness of human rights and domestic violence in their inclusion of these topics in the education curriculum from grade one upwards.  

Community attitudes towards domestic violence are precursors to whether the legislation is fulfilling its objectives in eliminating such violence nationally. The role of the church and community elders, or the unamane (traditional leaders), in addressing domestic violence is equally important for Kiribati as a religious and cultural society. While there are reports of people negatively reacting to the new act and the fears that it will destroy families rather than maintain the peace, sensitisation training and awareness for the elders, church leaders and community at large is crucial to the acceptance of Te Rau n Te Mwenga. Unless people accept that it is their moral duty to respond either individually or collectively to eliminate domestic violence, efforts to address  it in communities and the country will be fruitless. Changing behaviours and attitudes cannot be remedied by legislation alone, but raising awareness will provoke the moral consciousness of the community to play their role in eliminating domestic violence. The elimination of violence against women is not just the role of the Ministry of Women or key stakeholders in the Te Rau n te Mwenga Act; rather, it is the collective responsibility of the people of Kiribati. Domestic violence is the violation of the most basic and fundamental rights of a person, including the right to life, liberty and security of person, equality before the law, freedom from torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and freedom from discrimination. In a recent workshop on human rights in Kiribati, Vice President Teima Onorio stressed that, ‘Every person – man, woman and child – has a basic right to live life without fear, without prejudice and without the need to continually fight for their survival, or for that matter fight for the surety of their future.’

Conclusion

The passing of Te Rau n te Mwenga Act shows the commitment of the country to address the prevalence of domestic violence at the highest political level with the endorsement of the community. The eradication of violence will not occur immediately after the passing of the Act, but it is anticipated that, over time, domestic violence will be reduced and eliminated through the sharing and resourcing of intervention strategies, strong coordination amongst stakeholders and the community, and a change in attitudes and behaviours relating to domestic violence.

The role of carefully crafted implementation plans is pivotal for a realisation of change and making the law accessible to all. The culture of violence can be eliminated if young boys (men) and girls (women) are taught from an early age to respect each other, to respect human rights and dignity, and to address gender inequality and discrimination. They must also learn that people are empowered to know their basic human rights and lay claim to them.

Further, the effective implementation of the law should act as a deterrent to domestic violence and bring about a change in attitude and in the trends of domestic violence statistics in Kiribati. The first six months of addressing domestic violence since the act was passed have been slow in terms of implementation, but this is expected to intensify as the implementation plan is endorsed and rolled out by the government through the Ministry of Women, Youth and Social Affairs. In many respects, Kiribati is taking leaps and bounds in driving a whole-of-government response to eliminating domestic violence. This is no small feat – the proverbial wheels of Te rau n te Mwenga are beginning to grind, slow at first but certain to gain momentum.

From here onward, the monitoring of the implementation of the law is important to ensure that it is meeting the desired objectives captured in section 3 of the Te rau n te Mwenga Act.

 [1] Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) (2015) Beijing +20 Review of progress in implementing the Beijing Platform for Action in Pacific Island countries and territories.  Available at http://www.spc.int/images/publications/en/Corporate/Beijing20.pdf

[2] SPC (2010) Kiribati Family Health and Support Study: a study on violence against women and children, Suva, Fiji



SPC’s Regional Rights Resource Team receives core funding from the Australian Government and additional project support from the Kingdom of the Netherlands, Pacific Leadership Programme (PLP), European Union (EU) and the German Development Bank (KfW).