Don't let sexual violence laws "be words on a page," human rights adviser says

Pacific nations are successfully working through writing policies and laws around gender based violence, and becoming parties to international treaties, but not enough happens on the ground to implement those words.

At the Pacific Island Law Officers Network workshop this week, police, lawyers and judges from across the region are gathering to discuss exactly how to implement policies which take care of victims while ensuring the justice process runs smoothly.

Neomai Maravuakula is a senior human rights advisor at the Regional Rights Resources Team (RRRT) of the Pacific Community (SPC), and a trainer at the workshop. She said signing and ratifying international agreements simply isn’t enough to protect vulnerable people in society.

“It’s great to have laws, it’s great to have policies and all our governments are parties to numerous international conventions, but how do we make this real for our people?

“A lot of our countries have had the family health and safety study undertaken in their countries. These have shown high statistics around intimate partner violence,” she said.

Studies undertaken across the Pacific on family safety have proven to government the importance of not only writing good policy, but implementing it well. That requires a “whole-of-government” approach, Ms Maravuakula said.

“For a woman who is facing violence in her home, she may need to work and that is impacted, she will need health care facilities so our health care providers need that support as well.

“She may have children who are witnessing what is happening at home so our education system needs to be prepared to support this child.”

And not only that, those various sectors need to talk to each other, and be reporting potential issues in to police. Ms Maravuakula said stories where a person has died or become seriously injured often reveal several people were aware of their victimization but the dots had not been connected.

“And governments need to resource it. It’s one thing to have the law but if there is no budgetary allocation then our police don’t have the training, our courts don’t have the systems.”

“We try to work with our Governments to have the same enthusiasm you had to pass this law you have to have to implement it and that means allocating the money as well.”

And while the justice system and its partners are building up the capacity to cater to the victims needs before, during and after their court cases, RRRT works with the sector to learn to separate the personal from the professional.

Small Pacific countries suffer from police officers, lawyers, counsellors and more not giving a full service to their victims if they know or are related to the offenders. Ms Maravuakula said that is an ongoing challenge for the region.

“But this is the advice I tell our lawyers: at the end of the day you are a lawyer first, that is your role.

“We work with police officers and lawyers to talk about yes, we are small, but at the end of the day we need to support survivors of domestic violence.”

Speaking to the workshop, Ms Maravuakula told the group to not let legislation remain as "words on a page," but to make them real actions. And in his opening address, Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr Sailele Malielegaoi echoed those words. 

"We may know the law back to front, but we don't live it," he said.

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