Protecting the Family

[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post’s Weekender Edition. The events described here are all true. Names have been changed for obvious reasons.]

I never saw it coming.

I was with my adoptive brother Frank, his wife Marie-Anne and some friends, sitting on the porch one Saturday evening, chatting and sharing a little kava. Some other family members were hanging about in the compound. A dog barked once, punctuating the silence.

I didn’t see Jerry’s wife arrive, nor did I notice when she began her whispered tirade against him. So when he leapt up and cut her down with a right hook, I sat frozen, lightning-struck. He kicked her once in the ribs, picked her up, threw her full force into the cement wall. He hit her with two more right hooks before I could intercede.

His wife never made a sound.

Jerry is in his mid-twenties, an amiable layabout who enjoys his kava and an occasional beer. He’s built like a longshoreman, which likely contributed to the fact that no one intervened at first. His cousin and tawian quickly followed me into the fray, but that was to protect me, not to stop Jerry from using his wife as a punching bag.

I’m no fighter. I wouldn’t last ten seconds in the ring with… well, anyone. When I stepped into the melée, I trusted that Jerry’s drunkenness and my privileged status would create enough cognitive dissonance to give him pause. Speaking in calming tones, I put a hand to his chest and began to gently back him away.

It took him a full minute to realise that he could have brushed me aside with a flick of his hand, but it was time enough for his wife to retreat to the relative safety of the house.
Heart still pounding, I rejoined my friends on the porch.

“That was weird,” observed Marie-Anne, after a pause.

“Yeah,” I replied, the master of understatement.

“No, I mean that’s the first time I’ve seen Jerry actually win. Usually his wife has a tree branch ready when he comes home drunk.”

On Thursday, Parliament at last ended more than a decade of indecision and passed the Family Protection Act. For the first time in Vanuatu history, victims of domestic violence have comprehensive protection under the law. The bill was passed by a divided house, with members of the opposition storming out before the vote, ostensibly over a lack of due process.

The plain fact is that too many women and children in Vanuatu live in a culture of low-grade, perpetual violence. Often, the incipient threat is enough to keep them quiescent, but too often hard words are followed by blows. Too often, the very men required by kastom and the law to protect their families are the perpetrators of violence.

Just yesterday as I walked through the streets of Freswota, I spotted two women with black eyes. I passed the house of a man who, neighbours whisper, banished his wife to the spare room in order to make room for his 13 year old daughter.

Will the Family Protection Bill end all this? Not immediately. But it achieves one critically necessary objective: It recognises – at last – that every member of every household in this country has a right to live in safety. How the law is actually enforced remains to be seen.

Security in the home is a fundamental requirement for social and economic development. Children who are properly nurtured and respected are better students, better workers, and consequently better members of society. Adult victims of household violence miss more work, are less productive and in generally poorer health than those who live in security. The US Centers for Disease Control rightly classify household violence as a public health issue.

Researchers note that there is consensus in the international community that freedom from fear and violence is a universal human right to be accorded to all human beings, regardless of gender, ethnicity or nationality. Nobel prize winning economist Amartya Sen rightly argues that gender based violence exacts tremendous and irrevocable economic costs. Economic development in Vanuatu can never reach its potential while 50% of the population is forcibly kept out of the productive domains of society.

But this is precisely what many – if not most – of Vanuatu’s women experience daily.

The stifling effect on women was startling to me when I first arrived. It’s taken years of patient effort to get to the point where the women in my adoptive family feel they can speak freely with me. However kastom may be construed today, I cannot accept that this is what our bubus intended when they told us that our households should be run cooperatively, and that no man acts alone.

Anyone who consistently uses violence to assert his will inevitably silences those around him. He diminishes himself, cutting himself off from the love and support of those closest to him. Vanuatu society has yet to adequately recognise the cost exacted by this culture of casual violence. Passing the Family Protection Act is a first step toward recognising the riches that can be reaped in a society truly based on mutual respect.

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