It is four years since the Pacific Women’s Network Against Violence Against Women met to discuss strategies in this regard as well as engage, monitor progress and reinforce each other in the continuing challenges involved. It is a continuing struggle to do so and in the course of this meeting you will hear of the reasons why. While the country situations may differ in type, emphasis and scale, there are similarities that relate to systemic issues which centre on the unequal status of women in decision-making whether in the Government, political, social, legal, economic, cultural or religious spheres. In these remarks, I focus on the relationship between violence against women and the rule of law.
The rule of law is a phrase that is the focus of deep and extensive study by lawyers, philosophers and academics. For me as one with a legal background as well as an ordinary member of society, it is about a set of rules that apply to everyone irrespective of who or what they are. It is also about applying those rules not only consistently but fairly. And it is about justice: providing a structure and framework within which we as a community may seek redress, affirmation and protection. These aspects of the rule of law are directly connected to violence against women in a number of ways.
Basic to the rule of law are the laws and regulations which underpin it. These instruments provide the means by which women can be protected and their status improved throughout the region. They are, in a real sense, the primary tool to achieve those objectives. Without them, there is no system because the law is the means by which we order our relationships within our societies. There are serious challenges to it throughout our region that are reflected in various ways whether of a political, cultural or socio-economic nature or a mixture of these elements. But without adequate legislation in criminal law, family law, judicial system, human rights, women’s rights, minority rights, work place rights, to name a few, there is nothing for you to work with. But this is a process that requires analysis of the social realities, information gathering and assessment, engagement and co-operation with civil society and state entities as well as advocacy on a continuing basis.
The rule of law does not operate in a vacuum. It functions within society not as an arid legal concept, but as a practical one. It is only realised if, in addition to working for appropriate and relevant legislation, we ensure that these laws are applied, implemented and enforced. This also requires that there be ready and easy access to the courts. So if courts are reluctant to sanction violent conduct against women, the police are slow to arrest offenders, cultural and religious mores condone or excuse this behaviour, the rule of law is incomplete. It is not mean to be a convenient description to assure ourselves that we subscribe to particular standards. It requires of all of us a commitment to ensure that women, particularly those who are victims, vulnerable and at risk to understand it as giving them the protection and solace they constantly seek.
How does this concept relate to culture, tradition and custom? These remain very relevant and are vibrant influences in our societies. They are part of our identity and shape our perspectives of the world around us. Custom is part of the law in most countries of the region. The rule of law strives for fairness and consistency of treatment to all persons. Custom, which is the application of tradition and culture, disadvantage and marginalise women. They reinforce acceptance of violence against women because they perpetuate notions of their inferior status. It is a short step from that rationale to justifying beatings, forced marriages, rape and killings of women. I do not underestimate the enormity of the problems that some of you face daily. This event is actually a respite from that reality. But what I am merely saying is that we must be clear in our own minds that the rule of law is incompatible with these situations. However, they have to be changed and removed within the system. The rule of law is about making changes in the appropriate manner according to accepted procedures.
Religion is another significant influence you have to deal with. In the last decade and a half we have seen the advent of a strong fundamentalism, which emphasises the subservient and lesser status of women. Just as with culture and tradition, this message exposes women to violence and abuse because they are perceived as being weaker, and there are expectations of obedience and submission. It is important to remember that the rule of law is somehow seen by traditionalists and commentators as a neutral concept. I do not accept that. Culture and society are not static. As is the rule of law. The evolution of human rights within the rule of law obliges it to give more fuller effect to it. The universality of human rights particularly after the Second World War, requires the rule of law to take account of that development. So to with religion. Fundamentalist interpretations of Christianity in our region cannot deny women their right to be protected against violence of all forms. In working among the churches and religious groups, the emphasis must be on a nuanced rather than a confrontational approach. The New Testament is replete with passages that emphasise the place of women beside men rather than being subservient to them. And the Old Testament admonitions about women must be read with the strong notions of justice that are expressed throughout.
The rule of law as it relates to violence against women can only be effective when you, as advocates and proponents of women against violence, engage it. This occurs at a number of levels simultaneously whether it is strategising, formation of policy, drafting of legislation, adjudication of laws, enforcement, and advocacy. And while it is a specific area, it cannot be isolated from the debate around women’s rights, human rights and equality generally. They are closely linked, because the issue is ultimately about equal treatment and the right to live without fear of abuse. That is why the need to build alliances in civil society and beyond is self-evident. Because one has to change social attitudes and this is often a generational phenomenon. But it also has to be constantly reinforced, because violence against women is a feature of more affluent societies as well.
I believe that the country reports to be presented and discussed will be cause for concern. Because rather than demonstrating a consistent trend for the better, the results are uneven. While this is attributable to a number of factors, a common feature relates to rule of law issues. It may not be as pronounced in particular places, but the weakening of institutions through issues of competence, corruption, political interference and the like have in turn affected the capacity of agencies of the state to provide the necessary protection and support. How this can be combated and overcome lies in working together with institutions of the state and other members of civil society. That is the immeasurable benefit of this gathering: to meet, exchange ideas, develop strategies and provide support for each other in this continuing struggle to eliminate violence against women.
Some may argue that the seeming scale of violence against women would suggest that the initiatives to curb it have been unsuccessful. I would not agree. Not only does changing attitudes take time, but in looking at the rule of law, all the women in the audience will readily recognise that it is not gender neutral. Those who make the laws are overwhelmingly male as are those who administer and enforce it. This context is not apparent to people without an appreciation of gender unlike you who work in this field. Cultural, religious and social attitudes make this a continuing challenge. The rule of law is the framework within which all of us function. In the longer term, education and socialisation provide support that will help to shape the rule of law into a more empathetic means of support for protecting women against violence.
The strategies that you will be discussing will be about mobilising support both in the community and among specific groups whether it is parliamentarians, the executive, the courts, law enforcement, religious organisations and traditional elders as well as among women, youth and other marginalised groups. Providing appropriate laws is only the beginning as you well know. Of course, part of the reason this is such a vexed issue is the poor representation of women in our parliaments. Because men are the perpetrators, they do not see this as a critical issue. Violence against women is a national issue because it has such a damaging effect on our societies socially and economically. Violence against women is the most telling example of their unequal status. But changing the law, attitudes and, most importantly, behaviour demands preparation from the collection of data and information, research and analysis to advocacy. The most perfect legislation will not change the situation on the ground. But it is a beginning and is complemented by the other tasks that were mentioned earlier.
Quite apart from the very serious problems you face daily whether in cultural and religious values, the uncooperative attitude of the courts and law enforcement authorities, the complacency and apathy of our society have to be overcome. The daily suffering of many women throughout the region, and its resulting toll on family dysfunction and social breakdown, requires of all of us a sensitivity and determination to make a contribution for the better. The rule of law of itself will not make any difference. It has to be infused with the values and the beliefs that will protect women against violence. They in turn must be applied, enforced and affirmed by those responsible and by society as a whole. It is a lengthy and, at times, wearying process, but without the rule of law there is no foundation upon which violence against women can be addressed in a proper manner.
With those remarks, I am privileged to open this Fifth Pacific Regional meeting for Prevention Strategies for Violence Against Women.