Secretary General Meg Taylor’s remarks at the ADB: Annual Distinguished Gender Month Speaker Unlocking Gender Based Violence in the Pacific – Assessing the Scope, Magnitude and Economic Impact of Gender Based Violence in the Pacific

Audi A, ADB, HQ

18 March 2016


  • Distinguished Officials of the Government of Philippines;
  • Management and staff of the Asian Development Bank;
  • Representatives of development partner agencies, academia and civil society;
  • Colleagues, and friends,

Firstly I would like to thank the Asian Development Bank for your kind invitation to discuss the issue of gender based violence in the Pacific. I hope that I can stimulate a conversation about how the ADB, Pacific countries and Pacific regional organisations can work together in a practical and constructive way to address this serious and complex issue.
Today I will outline for you the extent of the problem of gender based violence in the Pacific. An undeniably serious problem, it is also encouraging to see greater political engagement in recent years on this issue, both at the national and regional level. And it this increasing regional-level engagement that I will particularly focus on, in my capacity as Secretary General to the Leaders of the Pacific Islands Forum, the political community of 16 independent and self-governing countries in the Pacific islands region.
This is a very timely discussion, and one that I believe can build on the discussions currently taking place in New York in the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). The inter-relationship between women’s economic empowerment and sustainable development – which is the focus of this year’s CSW – is very central to the Pacific’s approach to addressing gender based violence.
The social and economic implications of violence against women and girls in the Asia-Pacific region are of course not new to the ADB, and I am aware that you had the benefit of an excellent presentation on this topic in 2012 by Justice Dame Silvia Cartwright of New Zealand, Today I would like to concentrate specifically on the issue as it pertains to the Pacific islands region.
Before I turn to the issue of gender based violence, I think it worthwhile to set the scene on our region more generally. I know that we have Pacific experts with us today, but I also know that many of you may not yet have knowledge or experience of our region.
By way of background, 14 of the 16 Members of the Pacific Islands Forum are, according to UN nomenclature, Small Island Developing States. But they can also be described as ‘large ocean states’ given that they command Exclusive Economic Zones covering almost 20 million square kilometres of ocean –combined landmasses of Europe and the USA or India and China.
The majority of our Members share unique vulnerabilities including geographical isolation, small size, limited natural and human resources, aid dependence and vulnerability to climate change and natural disasters.
Within these commonalities, there is also significant diversity. So for example, while my own country, Papua New Guinea, has a relatively small population in global terms, of 6.7 million people, this is a huge number in comparison to many of our Members, with Nauru, for example, having a population of about 10 000, and Niue a population of just 1 500.
As a result of our special vulnerabilities, most Pacific island countries experience low economic growth and lack of job opportunities. Despite this, I also note a deep desire of its people to see the Pacific as economically stable, strong and with independent economies by utilising and maximising its oceanic and land resources.
Take Tuvalu for example, a country of 11 000 people spread over a land area of 26 squared km, with the highest point being 4 metres above sea level. As I am sure you can appreciate, rising sea levels are posing an existential threat to Tuvalu; as are natural disasters such as droughts.
The World Bank classifies Tuvalu as an Upper Middle income country, putting it in the same category as countries such as Argentina, China, South Africa and Turkey. Tuvalu has also been identified as meeting the criteria for Least Developed Country graduation – which it has strongly protested.
Tuvalu is also aid dependent, with 50 per cent of the government budget covered by Overseas Development Assistance. The scope for economic diversification, including for merchandise exports, is minimal, and nearly all goods are imported. There is limited scope for domestic resource mobilisation. The main source of foreign exchange has been the earnings from fishing license, Tuvaluan seafarers working abroad, and donor assistance. The private sector is very small. Growth prospects are not encouraging.
The example of Tuvalu provides a useful illustration of the general development context and concerns of many of our Member countries. And it should also give some context to the discussion that will unfold about women’s status in Pacific countries and obstacles to empowerment through economic participation.
Turning now to the issue of gender based violence in the Pacific, I want to firstly acknowledge the significant advances that have been made in our region in terms of the data that is now available on this issue. It is really only in recent times that systematic and comprehensive research has been undertaken to examine the prevalence of gender based violence in our countries.
Initial studies undertaken several years ago in Samoa, Vanuatu, Kiribati and Solomon Islands recorded prevalence rates of between 41 to 68 percent.
Between 2012 and 2016 studies were conducted in a further 8 Pacific countries, that is, Cook Islands, Fiji, Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Republic of Marshall Islands and Tonga. These studies, which focused on women’s experience of intimate partner violence, revealed that 32% to 79% of ever-partnered women had experienced sexual and/or physical violence in their lifetimes.
While this figure is sobering in of themselves, statistics can also seem quite distant or clinical, so I think it worthwhile to complement these figures with qualitative data. Let me share some short testimonies of victims of violence from Papua New Guinea, which was recently published in The Guardian [online publication, 29 February, 2016]:
“He beats me up very badly even though he sees I’ve lost a lot of blood or have marks all over my body,” she says. “Still he hits me until I fall unconscious.”
“[Once] he was drunk and he got a big stone and he wanted to kill me so my dad stopped him and was telling him: ‘You’re a big person – you need to stop this’,” she recounts.
“He was continuously shouting and aggressive. Why did I run away, he said. I said, well if you gave me a good life … but it never happened. It just went the other direction. It’s like I’m a slave and sex worker at the same time.”

I share these quotes not to shock or depress you, but to give you a deeper understanding of the living reality of many women in the Pacific.
The figures I referred to inevitably stimulate the question of why does our region experience such high rates of gender based violence? As attested by numerous studies undertaken from a wide range of disciplines there is no simple answer or singular cause. The prevalence of gender based violence has been attributed to long-standing social and cultural attitudes regarding power and also unequal power dynamics within families, communities and societies more broadly. Further, violence against women can be attributed to a general overall tolerance of violence in the Pacific. In particular, there is a higher tolerance of violence in general in Polynesia, than in Melanesia, where violence against women has a higher prevalence rate. This has been the findings of recent research in Tonga.
It can also be attributed to other factors, such as the significant attitudinal and structural barriers which affect women’s access to education, paid work and roles of influence in public institutions. Other factors included power differentials arising from limited ability to access finance, and to inherit land and property. Another important factor is the enormous impact of a lost role/purpose for young and older men in our societies, particularly in Melanesia, which has led to violent behaviour against women.
I draw your attention to sobering indicators regarding women’s access to economic opportunities in the Pacific. The 2012 Women’s Economic Opportunity Index , published by The Economist’s Intelligence Unit, provided a global comparison of women’s economic opportunities , and for the first time, Forum Island Countries were included. Most of the 6 surveyed Forum Island Countries ranked in the bottom 25 per cent of the index which covered 128 countries. Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea were ranked at 124 and 125, respectively.
As demonstrated by the individual testimonies I quoted earlier, women incur significant psychological injury and trauma from domestic violence, as well as physical injury. And this violence is suffered not only at an individual level; families, communities and society more broadly are all affected by the violence. Families break up; injured and traumatized women are unable to work; alleged perpetrators face criminal proceedings and the prospect of imprisonment.
The multifarious consequences of domestic violence make it difficult to neatly quantify its costs in economic terms. But we can recognize this type of violence as incurring both direct and indirect costs.
Direct costs include things such as the cost of medical services to respond to the physical consequences of domestic violence, and the cost of services to provide protection to victims, such as safe-houses, and the cost of resourcing a legal system which enables enforcement of domestic violence related laws.
Gender based violence can also result in indirect economic costs, such as the loss of productivity capacity arising from women having to take time out from earning money due to physical and emotional injury, or having to pursue legal proceedings, or make alternative living arrangements. Indirect economic costs also arise from the loss of productivity of men who have perpetrated violence, or are alleged to have, and who are then diverted into legal proceedings and possibly imprisonment.
Preliminary estimates on the costs of violence against women generated for Fiji in 2011 were in the order of FJ$498 million. For most Pacific island countries, this type of economic costing has not been undertaken, and so there exists a knowledge gap about the economic impacts of violence against women.
This area remains very under-researched in the Pacific and, perhaps, an area that ADB can focus on in collaboration with the relevant regional organisations in the Pacific. Quantifying the costs and impacts of violence against women, even though it might be crude and/or preliminary statistics, can influence the broad coalition of governments, private sector, development partners and NGOs to address violence against women and girls in the Pacific. Working on eradicating Gender violence requires significant persistence and discipline in policy response, even if results are not clear or forthcoming in the short-term.
At this point, I want to broach a question that I am sure is forming in many of your minds, being what is the political response to gender based violence in the Pacific? Is this an issue that is being taken seriously by political leaders?
From where I sit as the Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum, I can report that gender based violence has in recent years come to prominence on the regional political agenda.
In 2009, Forum Leaders collectively and publicly acknowledged the prevalence of sexual and gender based violence in the Pacific and its destablising effects on communities and society more broadly. Leaders committed to eradicate this form of violence and to ensure that all individuals have equal protection of the law and equal access to justice.
This commitment was further built upon in the Pacific Leaders’ Gender Equality Declaration which Leaders adopted in 2012. This Declaration was, in my view, a historic step for the Forum, a mature acknowledgement that gender equality is a critical priority for the Pacific.
In this Declaration, Leaders recognized that ‘improved gender equality will make a significant contribution to creating a prosperous, stable and secure Pacific for all current and future generations’. And Leaders further stated their ‘determination and invigorated commitment to efforts to lift the status of women in the Pacific and empower them to be active participants in economic, political and social life’.
Under the Declaration, Leaders committed to undertake specific policy actions at the national level in the following areas: gender responsive government programs and policies; decision making; economic empowerment; ending violence against women; and health and education.
In relation to violence against women, the Declaration records Leaders’ specific undertakings to:

  • provide essential services – including protection, health, counselling and legal – for women and girls who are survivors of violence; and
  • to enact and implement legislation to protect women from violence and impose appropriate penalties for perpetrators of violence.

So returning to the question I posed earlier – is the issue of gender based violence a political priority for the region – I think that the commitments of Forum Leaders provide strong evidence that this is indeed the case. And we can also see progress in the realisation of commitments under the Declaration through the tracking report that Leaders have directed the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat to prepare on an annual basis. For example, several countries have undertaken legislative reforms to address sexual and gender based violence, as specifically called for under the Declaration.
This kind of progress is significant, but we of course recognize that there is still much more to be done, and that high level statements of political commitment do not automatically translate into action on the ground. These regional undertaking have translated into national initiatives, such as:

  • Male advocacy training run by private sector foundations in PNG and CSOs led training and awareness across the Pacific, and also increasing involvement and work by faith-based organizations and Churches;
  • Training teachers on gender based violence in Kiribati;
  • Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Samoa and Tonga reported an increase in the number of women accessing support services for victims of violence;
  • Tuvalu passed a Family Protection and Domestic Violence bill and a total of 11 Forum Island Countries with domestic violence legislation;
  • The establishment of Zero Tolerance Violence Free Communities, such as in Fiji.

These are but a few of many examples across the Pacific.
Furthermore, a pilot study undertaken by the Forum Secretariat in two Forum Island Countries to examine the extent to which national budgets were ‘gender responsive’. The findings from one of the surveyed countries indicated an impressive level of political and institutional will to address gender based violence. However, it appeared that this did not translate into the commensurate allocation of resources to address the issue. Admittedly, the country in question faces severe economic constraints and relies heavily on development funds for core government programmes and activities. However, even under the Development Budget, gender was not identified as a development priority. As that old saying goes, ‘the devil is in the detail’.
While there is still much to be done to address the issue of gender based violence in the Pacific, I do believe that there now exists a strong regional platform by which to maintain momentum and pressure on this issue. And our regional commitments are also well supported by the recently adopted Sustainable Development Goals. As I am sure you are all aware, SDG 5 acknowledges the intrinsic connection between women’s equality and sustainable development. SDG 5 also identifies as a specific target the elimination of ‘all forms of violence against all women and girls in the public and private spheres including trafficking and sexual and other types of exploitation.’
I want to digress slightly from the specific issue of gender based violence and to talk a little bit more about the rate of progress in realizing political commitments. It is easy to get disheartened, to assume that little will change on a whole range of issues. But I think we should also recognize that change is not necessarily as linear or as logical as we like to expect, particularly in the development sphere. And I use as an example the very significant political developments that have occurred just this year in the Pacific. Our region has been repeatedly identified as one of the region’s with the lowest level of participation of women in national legislatures. However, just in recent months we have seen the election of Dr Hilda Heine as President of the Republic of Marshall Islands, in turn becoming the first female head of government of a Pacific islands country. This very morning the Honourable Prime Minister Samoa has confirmed the appointment of Honourable Fiame Naomi Mataafa as Samoa’s first female Deputy Prime Minister and the recent election in Samoa has returned five woman elected members of Parliament. I believe, Pacific women need to be far more strategic with regard to securing positions of political leadership.
I would like to talk a little bit more about the issue of women’s economic empowerment and its intrinsic connection with gender based violence.
As highlighted in the 2015 Pacific Regional MDGs Tracking Report, violence against women is a direct manifestation of women’s limited economic empowerment in the Pacific. While women of all economic circumstances are vulnerable to gender based violence, we also know that increased economic independence gives women more options and choices to leave a violent domestic partnership, to be better able to access services and to report on violence.
But of course, we also know that improving women’s economic empowerment is not a straightforward process. I was fascinated to read in the 2015 Regional MDG’s Tracking Report that while we have seen an increasing number of young women benefit from greater access to higher education, this has not automatically translated to better employment outcomes for them. So we must recognize from the outset the complexity of improving women’s economic status, but not be deterred by it. There is so much opportunity for creativity and innovation and importantly cooperation.
In this regard, I acknowledge the work of the UNDP’s Pacific Financial Inclusion Programme and the ADB’s Private Sector Development Initiative in promoting women’s economic empowerment through financial literacy, access to finance and SME development. However, despite the significant progress to date on financial inclusion, the Pacific Financial Inclusion Programme only concentrates on the relatively larger Forum Island Countries with Central Banks, hence the Smaller Islands States are excluded.
As it does with gender based violence, the Gender Equality Declaration also identifies specific actions for improving women’s economic empowerment. These actions include:

  • removing barriers to women’s participation in the formal and informal sectors, including discriminatory legislation, whether it be directly or indirectly discriminatory;
  • implementing equal opportunity measures in public sector employment, including state owned enterprises and statutory agencies;
  • improving the facilities and governance of local produce markets, in recognition of women’s high level of participation in this sector; and
  • targeting support for women entrepreneurs in the formal and informal sectors, including through the provision of financial literacy training to women, and the reform of legislation that impedes women’s access to finance, assets, land and other productive resources.

Regarding this issue of legislative barriers to women’s access to finance, I have been really interested to learn about the ADB’s initiative in developing a model law, known as Secured Transactions Act, which allows for loans to be drawn against moveable assets as collateral. I understand that while several Pacific countries have enacted this law, it has not yet been embraced by Small and Medium Enterprises and commercial banks. So there is important work to be done to give life to these important legislative reforms which offer greater opportunity for women’s entrepreneurship.
I now turn to the fundamental question which brings us together today, and that is what can the ADB do to support the elimination of gender based violence in the region? I can offer general suggestions, but I also want to learn of ADB’s experience generally in incorporating gender considerations into its work.
In addressing the question I have posed, I would like to firstly start with some points of general principle, drawing on some statements about cooperation that Forum Leaders have articulated in recent years.
Firstly, in the Gender Equality Declaration which I have referred to frequently today, Leaders called on development partners ‘to work in a coordinated, consultative and harmonized way to support national led efforts to address gender inequality across the region’. Leaders also requested development partners to ‘increase financial and technical support to gender equality and women’s empowerment programmes’.
More recently, Leaders have endorsed the Framework for Pacific Regionalism which expresses Leaders’ expectations that the regional agenda strive for a higher level of ambition, and that our regional efforts deliver results that make a practical and positive difference to the lives of Pacific people. The Framework emphasises effective, honest and enduring relationships based on mutual accountability and respect. This expectation is not limited to the relationships between our Members, but applies to the relationships the Forum has developed with a wide range of countries and organisations, including the ADB.
So as a general observation, there is a clear expectation by Forum Leaders that the priorities they have identified be supported by the organisations offering development assistance to the Pacific. And eliminating violence against women, and improving women’s economic empowerment clearly feature as priorities of the Forum.
Now to address the question from a more operational basis. As a development/infrastructure bank, I can appreciate that you may think that you do not have a direct role in preventing violence against women. However, as discussed above, there is an inextricable link between women’s vulnerability to gender based violence and women’s status in society. As designers and funders of key development projects, you can ensure that the concerns of women and girls are not overlooked in these projects. And more than just ensuring that they are not overlooked, you can work to infuse opportunities in development investments which actively promote the participation of women in whatever sector your investment is seeking to stimulate.
We can no longer rest on the assumption that development projects are gender-neutral, and we must recognize that there are gender implications of the way we plan and construct all forms of infrastructure, whether they be hospitals, roads or power stations. As I said before, the devil is in the detail and so as an example, the design of a public building such as a hospital may pose safety and hygiene risks to women if the specific needs and concerns of women are not clearly identified and taken into account. In turn this may dissuade women from utilizing its services, or from seeking employment there, and consequently compound a whole range of other problems.
And of course gender implications are not limited to physical infrastructure, but also arise in the legal and regulatory infrastructure that is established to support private sector development in the Pacific. We need to ensure that policies and laws actively address the disadvantages that women face in seeking employment, in seeking access to finance, in seeking to participate in business and public life.
In concluding, I want to reiterate the political priority that Forum Leaders have accorded to promoting the equality of women in the Pacific. The elimination of violence against women is both an end in itself and an important means to improving women’s economic, political and social status.
The issue is complex, but I take heart from the fact that what was not so long a taboo subject now attracts significant attention from a very wide range of stakeholders – as this seminar today attests. Open and frank discussions, sharing of information and views are vital to the process of unpacking assumptions and long-standing practices that operate to justify violence against women and girls.
We all have a role to play in addressing violence against women in the Pacific. To you in the ADB, I encourage you to recognize the considerable power and leverage you hold with governments and the private sector, and to utilise these relationships to advance what is now undeniably both a regional and global goal to eradicate gender based violence.
Thank you.
Click here for the Closing Remarks by DG PARD Xianbin Yao

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