Implementing domestic violence legislation in the Pacific – an early reflection

By Ruby Awa, Senior Human Rights Adviser, The Pacific Community

The story so far

Across the Pacific region, countries are in the early stages of implementing family protection and domestic violence legislation. This paper discusses their experiences to date.

In 2008, Vanuatu’s Parliament passed the very first comprehensive domestic violence legislation in the Pacific ‒ the Family Protection Act (2008). Between 2009 and 2014, domestic violence laws were passed in Fiji, Marshall Islands, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tonga, Kiribati, Kosrae State (Federated States of Micronesia), Solomon Islands and Tuvalu.

Commencement

Tonga had a very clear plan for the commencement of its Family Protection Act (2013). There was commitment to training, consultation and development of their implementation plan with a set time frame of six months. After six months, the act went through the required processes for commencement. In Vanuatu and some other countries, there was immediate commencement of their domestic violence acts, but the actual application of some provisions came later, with appointments, consultation, training and pilot programmes. Solomon Islands carried out nationwide consultation and training with the police, the courts, NGOs and communities over the course of two years before commencement of their act in 2016. Certain provisions, such as the registration of counsellors, will be delayed until a register is developed and the minister appoints counsellors.

Implementations plans

Implementation plans are a new development in domestic violence legislation. The idea developed from lessons learned in countries that already had domestic violence legislation. The Pacific Community’s (SPC) Regional Rights Resource Team (RRRT) has assisted Kiribati, Tonga, Tuvalu and Solomon Islands to develop implementation plans.

The plan sets out the framework for implementing the law, including the duties, responsible institutions/authorities, costing, and a time frame for fulfilling or commencing certain activities. For example, an implementation plan may note that police safety forms must be printed and that the forms should include the date of printing the first batch.

The implementation plan for Kiribati also includes narrative on the standards and principles that stakeholders should consider. The implementation plans for Tonga and Solomon Islands are in the form of a matrix that sets out short-term and long-term goals and an integrated monitoring plan.

Some countries develop their implementation plan after the legislation is enacted, while others develop it simultaneously. The Solomon Islands Bills and Legislation Committee considered a bill with an annexed implementation plan. 

The plans are living documents that are continuously reviewed and changed.  

Regulations

Not all countries with domestic violence legislation have developed regulations. Some consider that the legislation provides clear steps and definitions that responsible institutions can apply. Papua New Guinea held a consultation in 2015 on a draft family protection regulation that provided the necessary definitions and steps to guide the courts.

Counselling and mediation

Most of the domestic violence legislation in the Pacific provides for counselling. Counselling is not mandatory, but where the victim, or the perpetrator in some countries, wants counselling, approved counsellors must be arranged. While countries are working towards national standards and accreditation, the current development includes training for counsellors who are working with domestic violence victims.

Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands provide for mediation, but it is crucial that all service providers bear in mind that domestic violence happens where there is gender inequality and that power and controls rests with the perpetrator. Under the Solomon Islands Family Protection Act (2014), the only institution that can provide information on mediation is the court. This is not part of a court order, but as information should parties wish to undertake mediation voluntarily.

Training for stakeholders

Stakeholders include institutions that have duties under the act, such as the courts, police, health care providers, government ministries with roles in training, awareness and oversight of implementation of the act, and civil society groups that carry out awareness programmes.

The legislation provides for new protection mechanisms and ways to respond to domestic violence. It has therefore been necessary to train relevant stakeholders such as police, judges and magistrates, who have an essential role in ensuring the implementation of these protection mechanisms. Training of stakeholders is also necessary when they are given additional roles. For example, the Solomon Islands FPA provides for police safety notices, which meant police required training on their role as set out in the FPA.

Vanuatu was the first country to make training on its domestic violence act compulsory. Other countries are training the police and also developing modules on domestic violence for them. Human rights and gender are crucial components of the training as they are key principles in the application of domestic violence laws. Domestic violence is a violation of human rights and a form of discrimination. Where there is gender inequality, the disadvantaged and oppressed gender, mostly females, are more vulnerable and susceptible to violence in the home.

When I was in Solomon Islands recently for a training session, a police officer commented that even though the police now have powers to issue notices to perpetrators of domestic violence, their biggest challenge is to decipher whether the violence was the result of provocation.

Obviously, it is not the role of the police to consider provocation. Their role is to provide immediate protection for victims of domestic violence. This is one of the many discussions emerging around the Pacific in relation to new domestic violence legislation.

Training for the community

Police safety notices, also called police safety orders in some Pacific countries, are like court orders. The police are to look for three things: whether domestic violence has happened or is likely to happen; whether the two people involved in the violence or threat of violence are members of the same family; and whether getting a court order is not possible.

Domestic violence has been tolerated for too long in Pacific communities and one of the biggest challenges lies in attitudes to this violence. Emerging research shows the vulnerability of women and girls, but there is also a tendency to feel that men and boys are not considered. There is a need for consultation and discussion on this key issue: that the vulnerability of women and girls to violence, and the strategies to deal with it, should include both males and females. For example, both sexes find that reporting violence in the family to the police is a difficult matter. However, it is important to further consider that women and girls find reporting a male family member very frightening, as the male may be perceived as the person with the most power in the house.

Having the right information about domestic violence laws and the places to go to for help is crucial for community members. NGOs play an important role in sharing information on domestic violence laws in communities and some have developed, or are developing, relevant training manuals.

Some countries have set up committees that are responsible for approving training manuals to ensure that communities receive clear messages.

Advisory councils

Advisory councils or committees provide oversight of the implementation of domestic violence laws. These bodies are appointed by a government minister and have met in most of the countries that have established domestic violence laws.

The main outputs of most of the committees are an annual report to parliament on the progress of implementation of the legislation and a review after three years.

Conclusion

At the time of writing, Cook Islands, Niue, Nauru and the states of Chuuk and Pohnpei (FSM) do not yet have family protection/domestic violence legislation, although in all cases processes are underway. Enactment of legislation is a significant milestone but effective implementation of the laws is the most critical step in offering protection and change to women and children across the Pacific.



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).