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Trouble in Paradise: Solomon Islands' traditions foster inequality


Members of Solomon Islands YWCA march during International Women's Day in Honiara by DFAT/Credit:Jeremy Miller

Solomon Islands, the string of paradise-looking green islands tucked away in the South Pacific, is a place of exotic beauty where life flows at a gentle pace. But it also a country with one of the highest rates of violence against women in the world. And the violence is widely accepted as "the way things are".

A new report by the Equal Rights Trust shows that strong traditions, such as Kastom (Pijin for custom) and Wantok ('one talk') reinforce clan ties, but also emphasise differences and foster discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, gender, disability and sexual orientation.

In particular, the report highlights widespread discrimination against women, which is directly connected to Kastom - in this case, the patriarchal attitudes and gender stereotypes typified by the Bigman culture, whereby communities look to a strong male figure to provide leadership and consider women as inferior to men.

"We found that women are effectively second-class citizens in Solomon Islands; they are invisible in all areas of politics and government and do not participate equally with men in any area of life. Violence against women is alarmingly widespread and widely accepted by both men and women," said Executive Director of the Equal Rights Trust, Dr Dimitrina Petrova.

Statistics highlighted in the report are startling: more than half of all women experienced sexual violence by an intimate partner and 64% of women between 15 and 49 suffered violence at home.

During a focus group discussion for the report, one woman summarised male attitudes towards women in these terms: "You women are here on earth to give birth and work for us men, and we are your bosses; so do as we say."

In travel guides, the former British protectorate south-east of Papua New Guinea is presented as a friendly melting pot of cultures and traditions, but the report found serious discrimination between those of different Wantok, community groups based on shared linguistic and cultural heritage. "Our research found compelling evidence of concern amongst Solomon Islanders that those in positions of power abuse their authority and make corrupt decisions in favour of their Wantok group," says Petrova.

In addition, the report found that people with disabilities are perceived as "cursed" and denied equality of participation in education, employment and healthcare. And lesbian, gay and bisexual persons are subject to severe social stigma.

The report argues that if Solomon Islands is to move on from the civil unrest, which brought the country to the brink of collapse between 1998 and 2003, its people must stand up and fight traditions which exacerbate difference on the basis of ethnicity, gender, disability and sexual orientation.

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