Tuesday 28 July 2009, Secretariat of the Pacific Community, Suva, Fiji Islands
No more discriminatory evidence practices in sexual assault law, said the main law making body in Solomon Islands.
With a chorus of support the Solomon Islands Parliament made important strides towards gender equality in its law by changing four legal practices in its newly passed Evidence Act 2009. The changes should also remove major obstacles to successfully prosecuting offenders in sexual assault cases.
Ethel Sigamanu, Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Women, welcomed the changes.
"The Ministry of Women and the Law Reform Commission of the Ministry of Justice on behalf of the government is stepping up efforts to ensure that Solomon Islands laws are reformed in regard to addressing Violence Against Women and child abuse. To this end we need to forge, build and strengthen partnerships. Given also that Violence against Women is multifaceted, it cannot be approached through a single lens."
Sigamanu congratulated the Law Reform Commission and the agencies which had supported the process. Amongst those agencies were the Evidence Bill Committee, the Women Lawyers Association (WILASI), the MWYCA, and UNIFEM. The Pacific Regional Rights Resource Team of the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (RRRT) supported the reform process for over 10 years, providing technical and policy advice.
The Evidence Act 2009 removed the corroboration rule which treated as suspicious the evidence of a person who claimed to have been sexually assaulted. The law previously held that it was dangerous to convict without some other independent supporting evidence. This requirement, based on an outmoded belief that women almost always lie about sexual matters, has been abolished in the new Act.
The Act also prevents courts from drawing an inference that a woman who delayed reporting her sexual assault must be lying. The new law also requires judicial permission before a complainant can be questioned about her past sexual history with other men, on the basis that such matters are generally unnecessary and irrelevant to the issues in the case. Finally, the Act gives a Court a discretion to permit the complainant and other vulnerable witnesses to testify without facing the assailant, by using modern technology. Such a provision is particularly important for child victims.
A leading expert on gender-based violence has applauded the reforms, while acknowledging that there was still room for improvement. RRRT's Human Rights Advisor, Imrana Jalal stated:
"Law making in the end is generally a democratic compromise. Important and advanced standards have been set in this new Bill although some of the new provisions still fall somewhat short of international best practice. Nevertheless, these are major advances and are to be seen as interim measures until better, more comprehensive and integrated laws are passed."
Jalal made the comments at a Violence Against Women legislation workshop in Honiara which was funded and supported by SPC, UNIFEM, the Ministry of Women, Youth and Children's Affairs (MWYCA) and the Solomon Islands Law Reform Commission.
The workshop heard that most Pacific countries still allow the highly discriminatory corroboration practice in relation to the evidence of the complainant. It is still practised in Vanuatu, Solomon Island, FSM and other PICTs. It has been removed by legislation in RMI, PNG, Kiribati and the Cook Islands, and now Solomon Islands; and by the courts in Fiji. Even though the courts in Tonga had attempted to remove the rule in the 1994 case of Tangi, subsequent cases brought back the need for a corroboration warning in sexual offence cases.
"This reversal in Tonga underscores the need for watertight, unambiguous legislation to remove it", said Lionel Aingimea, Senior Trainer at RRRT/SPC, who was also a resource person at the workshop.
Miriam Lidimani, President of the Women Lawyers of the Solomon Islands (WILASI) and a practicing barrister, gave many local examples of how the old law had demeaned women and child victims in the past. She looked forward to a new era for gender equality in the law in the Solomon Islands. All those present at the workshop stressed the importance of gender training for all legal officials who administer the new law, including Judges, Magistrates, lawyers and police officers. Otherwise the new law would not meet its full potential.
The Solomon Islands is a signatory to the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) which requires the elimination of all laws and practices that discriminate against women. The Solomon Islands Government, now preparing its Initial Report under the Convention, will be able to point to its success in enacting the Evidence Act 2009 as a milestone on the road to gender equality.
For further information please contact Imrana Jalal of SPC/RRRT at +679 9924765 or email: [email protected]
Background: The Regional Rights Resource Team (RRRT), which is a programme of the Secretariat of the Pacific Community, works with partners in nine focus countries (Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, Nauru and Vanuatu) to offer training and expert advice on the development of human rights advocacy, lobbying, mobilisation strategies and the drafting of national human rights legislation. The team provides human rights training, technical support, and policy and advocacy services tailored specifically for the Pacific region. Its mission is to seek a Pacific region that is respected for the quality of its governance, the sustainable management of its resources, the full observance of democratic values and for its defence and promotion of human rights.