Low status of women and girls
In Pacific countries where women have a low status, girl children are particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse and exploitation.
Girls are generally at the very bottom of the social hierarchy in Pacific societies, particularly in Melanesia where there is greater gender inequality than elsewhere in the region. In accordance with this low status, girls are socialized to a sense of inferiority and they do not fully develop the notion of having a choice or an opinion. Furthermore, in countries where girls are of particularly low status in society, they are taught to never question male authority.
This socialization process raises the vulnerability of these girls to sexual abuse and exploitation because adolescent girls who lack experience in making choices or contradicting males have difficulty in rejecting sexual advances, particularly when the man is older. In addition, these girls do not have the ability to “negotiate their way out of ” high-risk situations. Furthermore, since these girls are not empowered to recognize their rights, they are less likely to be able to recognize that they are being abused or exploited and so are unable to develop strategies to protect themselves from further abuse or exploitation.
The socialization process of boys also affects the vulnerability of girls to abuse and exploitation. Boys in Melanesian societies, and to some extent elsewhere in the Pacific, are socialized to believe that girls and women are inferior and that their opinions are not important. Therefore even if a girl is able to say “no” to sexual advances, men are often not deterred. In some cases, if a girl agrees to spend time with them or is unprotected by a male family member, men will assume she is sexually available and will feel justified in raping the girl.
The five country studies found evidence of these socialization factors influencing the vulnerability of girls to sexual abuse and exploitation. In Kiribati, for example, it was noted that girls are raised to be “subservient to male discipline and control” and that these girls do not have a highly developed sense of their rights and how to protect themselves.
Some of the country studies also showed evidence of the tendency among men to see women and girls as inferior and as being commodities. For example, the Solomon Islands study highlighted that men tend to perceive girls as being “spoiled” if they have been sexually abused. These girls are generally perceived as no longer marriageable in these societies and are instead viewed as “freely available”. Such perceptions often lead to further abuse and exploitation of these girls.
Vanuatu was one of the five countries studied in this report. I am still working my way through it. Generally there are not statistics available in Vanuatu to be able to draw an accurate picture of what is happening. I understand that the situation is worse in Fiji and PNG than in Vanuatu, though perhaps with the increase of international tourism to Vanuatu, the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children has the potential to follow the same trajectory as it has in those other Pacific countries. Though I am hopeful that there are mitigating factors here that would prevent such a thing happening.