Members of the Solomon Islands Young Women’s Christian Association. The association provides support and training on various issues, including gender-based violence. Photo by: Jeremy Miller / DFAT / CC BY

CANBERRA — The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is considered a leader in delivering programs targeting violence against women and girls in the Indo-Pacific region. But despite the gains that Australian aid supported programs have made since 2008, there is more that needs to be done — and the data shows it.

The Office of Development Effectiveness, a unit within DFAT that monitors and assesses the impact of the Australian aid program, has undertaken its second review of gender-based violence programs, studying investments and impact in the decade since 2008. The report focuses on specific countries seen to have “significant” programming in this space: Fiji, Indonesia, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Timor-Leste, and Vanuatu.

It expands upon a 2008 ODE evaluation, which found that contributions of international donors to tackle violence against women and girls were insufficient, poorly coordinated, and lacking clear strategy for supporting change. Donor and government willingness to discuss the topic at high-level development forums was also low.

The new report found much had been achieved — but some challenges remained, including the large proportion of women in the Indo-Pacific region facing domestic violence and the lack of partner government investment in the sustainability of programs.

Australian aid has made an important contribution in changing the conversation on violence — both at a community and government level, Pasanna Mutha-Merennege, manager of policy and government relations at Plan International Australia, told Devex.

“We can point to progress, for example the introduction of the family violence act in Solomon Islands,” she said. “Although it feels as if progress has been slow, we should acknowledge that ending violence against women and girls will take a generation and a generational investment is needed.”

The funds have also been critical in supporting the advancement of programs managed by NGOs.

“In Vanuatu, with the support of the Australian aid program, CARE has several ongoing projects that address violence against women and girls, women’s leadership, and women’s economic empowerment,” Athena Nguyen, gender equity and social inclusion adviser at CARE Australia, told Devex.

“The projects work to build collective women’s leadership at a national level, whilst also working at a community level to increase women’s access to and control of productive resources, women’s agency and decision-making — and to end violence against women and girls,” she said.

Through the report and its recommendations, all 20 of which have been accepted by DFAT, the next decade of aid programming to end violence against women and girls will be shaped.

Understanding Indo-Pacific violence through data

Domestic violence in the Pacific: Why investment matters

Two new reports released July 30 highlight the gravity of domestic violence in the Pacific, with the aim to draw attention to the societal norms that are impacting social and economic development in the region.

Violence against women and girls can take a variety of forms — including violence by an intimate partner; rape; sexual assault; child abuse; forced prostitution; trafficking; violence due to sexual orientation, identity or disability; forced marriage: female genital mutilation; and honor killings.

The impacts, the report says, are social, physical, and economical.

The data that helps to understand the extent of the issues in the Indo-Pacific region — especially among the most vulnerable groups or taboo subjects such as sexual violence against children — is limited, often requiring a broader understanding of global trends or anecdotal evidence.

Data collated by the United Nations Population Fund from a range of national surveys conducted between 2000 and 2018 — which measure the prevalence of violence against women in the Asia-Pacific region — cited in the ODE report, paints a concerning picture of the violence women face, both within their communities and behind closed doors.

In Nauru, more than a quarter of women had experienced physical violence in pregnancy. In Vanuatu over one quarter said their first experience of sexual intercourse was forced.

In Tonga and Samoa, more than six out of 10 women experienced physical violence caused by a non-partner in their lifetime. In Nauru more than half of respondents reported sexual violence at the hands of a non-partner.

In Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Fiji, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Solomon Islands, Timor-Leste, and Vanuatu more than half of women experienced physical or sexual violence at the hands of an intimate partner.

In Bangladesh, Marshall Islands, Samoa, Solomon Islands, and Timor-Leste, over half of respondents said the surveys were the first time they had disclosed partner-based violence to anyone.

Less data is available on violence against women and girls with disabilities, but the limited data available and anecdotal evidence suggested heightened risk among this vulnerable group in the Indo-Pacific. Violence against sexual minorities also sees similar challenges in creating a baseline of knowledge, with legal barriers often preventing the ability of victims to report abuse and seek justice.

According to the report, social norms, as well as discriminatory laws and policies, can exacerbate violence within Indo-Pacific countries. Although most countries in the region have laws against domestic violence, marital rape may not be explicitly criminalized — and this can suggest social acceptance of violence against women.

Laws restricting divorce, access to abortion and contraception, or having a lower legal age of marriage for women than for men, are also suggested to create a society where women are seen as subordinates of men — and creating a greater risk of violence that is seen on the ground.

In Papua New Guinea, CARE International has implemented programming to improve sexual, reproductive and maternal health in the remote highlands and the autonomous region of Bougainville, and to reduce the incidences of family and sexual violence.

“Working with the local community, community leaders, community health services, and provincial authorities, CARE has supported women to make informed and safe decisions on family planning and reproductive health, and to shift unequal power relations that can be both a cause and consequence of violence against women and girls,” Nguyen said.

Stronger laws, Mutha-Merennege believes, are an important part of programming to tackle the rates of violence against women and girls.

“We would like to see greater alignment between the child protection and family violence legal systems,” she said. “The ‘Unseen, unsafe’ report from last year highlighted the high rates of violence against girls in the Pacific and Timor-Leste. Strengthening the knowledge of law enforcement, legal staff, and the judiciary will continue to be important, especially in relation to intersectional issues such as age, disability, and sexuality.”

What has Australia done since 2008?

Over the decade from 2007-08 to 2017-18, Australia invested over $300 million Australian dollars ($202 million) on activities that aimed to end violence against women and girls. Fifty-one percent of these funds targeted activities in the Pacific. South East and East Asia received 21%, South and West Asia 20% and global initiatives 8%. Peak funding was reached in the 2016-17 financial year, declining in 2017-18.

Globally, however, the report found Australia to be a leader despite this drop, with the report saying that Australia’s disbursements targeting gender-based violence were the second-highest for donor countries.

Australian NGOs have been a large player in action, with 310 programs for prevention, justice, and service delivery activities supported through the Australian NGO Cooperation Program since 2008. And through humanitarian assistance, funding to multilateral agencies, broader gender equality programs, and support for other sectors with gender-based violence programming, Australia was estimated to have contributed additional funds in excess of $100 million Australian dollars.

In the space of leadership, Australian support for the adoption of the Pacific Leaders’ Gender Equality Declaration by the Pacific Island Forum in August 2012 and the Declaration on the

Elimination of Violence Against Women and the Elimination of Violence against Children in ASEAN by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations leaders in October 2013 were identified as key highlights.

And the appointment of Australia’s first Ambassador for Women and Girls in 2011 was seen to have sent a “strong message” on the importance of gender equality to the Australian aid program in the report. Within DFAT, corporate policies supporting gender equality were also important in displaying leadership.

Pros and cons of DFAT’s gender-based violence approach

An increase in funding and support for a diverse range of locally based programs that support the prevention and response to violence against women and girls are considered by the report as strategic advantages of the DFAT approach, as is involvement and discussion of gender-based violence in high-level forums.

Both have helped to improve access to services and justice within the Indo-Pacific since 2008, but many challenges remain.

Monitoring, evaluation, and research has not kept pace with improved international standards and best practice — an issue which the report says needs to be addressed.

The sustainability of Australian support programs is also in question. In Vanuatu, a 2016 study by UN Women into the access for women and girls to the justice system in Vanuatu found that access to police and response services was “highly dependent” on Australian government funding.

“The study estimated that 100 per cent of the budget of the VWC and 36 per cent of the operational budget of the Vanuatu Police Force (including the Family Protection Unit) are supported by Australian aid,” the OCE report said. “This raises significant concerns about sustainability of survivor services across countries in the Indo-Pacific.”

In other sites, the evaluation team found it was “unrealistic to expect governments to provide effective services in the coming years.”

Women’s organizations, NGOs, and faith-based organizations were providing the essential services in the communities in the Indo-Pacific, including services to survivors and training. Direct government support was limited, making gender-based violence programs vulnerable. Continued investment from Australia in supporting Indo-Pacific governments and NGOs was seen as vital for their continuance over the next decade.

“There are serious risks that major gains would be lost if Australia’s support to services was scaled back,” the report says.

Limited engagement with the private sector supporting gender-based violence programs was also seen as a limitation, with opportunities to encourage businesses to develop new policies supporting women facing violence and changing how business communities perceive gender-based violence.

While DFAT has agreed to all 20 recommendations, the resulting changes in the new Australian aid program, currently under review, will determine how well these are implemented to improve the lives of women and girls in the Indo-Pacific.

“We’re encouraged by the government’s comments that gender equality will continue to be a priority for the Australian aid program,” Mutha-Merennege said.

“The levels of violence against women and girls, particularly in our region, show just how important it is for the review to not only maintain, but actually increase investments in gender equality.”

Devex, with support from our partner UN Women, is exploring how data is being used to inform policy and advocacy to advance gender equality. Gender data is crucial to make every woman and girl count. Visit the Focus on: Gender Data page for more. Disclaimer: The views in this article do not necessarily represent the views of UN Women.

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About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.