Deceptive appearances hide the true battles still to be won for women in Niue

‘Appearances can be deceptive because of the battles still to be won’ is how I would describe the status of women in Niue in 2022. As we celebrate International Women’s Day today, I believe the optics of the number of successful women in leadership roles is hiding the true gap in legal protection for women in Niue.

We marvel at the achievements of the women in our country, that they hold some of the top public service positions. From the top public servant in Secretary to Government and lawyer Peleni Talagi, two of the three commissioners of the public service are women including the chairperson Ida Talagi-Hekesi and Commissioner Victoria Kalauni. Three of the four Heads of government ministries are women, Gaylene Tasmania leads the Ministry of Social Services, Dr. Josie Tamate heads the Ministry of Natural Resources and Doreen Siataga is the Head of the Ministry of Finance and Economic. Most Directors and heads of agencies both in government and non-government organisations are women, yes too many to name here.

But Niue remains out of step with the rest of the region in ratifying the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) as one of only two countries in the Pacific yet to ratify this convention. Many still believe that Niue has ratified this convention under New Zealand however in 1994 the United Nations Secretariat “recognise the full treaty-making capacity of the Cook Islands in 1992 and that of Niue in 1994” after New Zealand in a declaration dated November 10, 1988 “by express provision and with the consent of all parties concerned, that its future participation in the international agreement would no longer extend to the Cook Islands or Niue”.

In August 2006 the Cook Islands proceeded to ratify CEDAW, while Niue still has not ratified it.

So, while the appearances make for a great example of women in leadership, Niuean women are still behind in terms of legal protection as compared to other New Zealand female citizens in New Zealand and the Cook Islands.

Niue’s leading legal advisor is Solicitor-General Justin Kampuala agrees that there are shortfalls in the law. “If we were to use NZ legislation as a benchmark, I would say we have some ground to cover. But the draft Bill we have been working on would go a long way if not achieving or addressing the shortfalls in the law”

Mr. Kamupala is talking about the Family Law Bill which has been in draft form since 2010, twelve years later it is still a draft bill.

The instigator of this Bill is veteran politician O’love Jacobsen during her time as a Minister in 2010 but since then, probably because of the lack of a champion, the Family Law Bill remains a draft. She believes that it is time for her to champion this bill and push it through the legislative process in her current role as the Chair of the Parliamentary Bill’s Committee. Hon. Jacobsen will champion this bill twelve years after she initiated it.

Meanwhile, in the absence of a domestic violence law, women who suffer abuse at the hands of their spouses are treated as victims of common assault, relegating this heinous crime to a minor assault charge and often dropped by the Police prosecution if the victim changes her mind. There is no legal provision to compel the Police to prosecute all domestic violence cases.

At Makini Hall today in celebrating International Womens Day there was an event hosted by the National Council of Women and Minister of Community Affairs responsible for Women Hon. Sauni Tongatule spoke of the Cabinet’s decision to give a grant of $10,000 for the Council of women. This was well received with applause from the ladies, Minister Tongatule went on to mention that Cabinet will consider making International Womens day next year a public holiday.

There was no mention as to when the Family Law Bill will be taken to the Fono Ekepule to become law, to provide legal protection for women and children.

It is though understandable that some may think that women in Niue are not suffering so what’s the problem? I will use two examples to highlight why such ignorance needs to change.

Firstly, research conducted in 2017 found gaps in the legal protection of women in Niue. The report by Erin Thomas of the International Centre for Advocates Against Discrimination is on the assessment of gender-based violence in Niue. 

The report found that in Niue ‘criminal offences as defined in current legislation fail to meet international standards for ending violence against women. That new legislation is needed to both modernize and set new standards to promote women’s rights and gender equality in Niue. 

The findings also demonstrated how gender bias functions to hinder survivors’ access to justice and how limited formal mental health resources and stigma around help-seeking behaviors hinder survivor’s safety and access to long-term mental healthcare. 

Furthermore, the taboo nature of Gender-based Violence makes it difficult to discuss it in a particularly close-knit community like Niue.’

Then there’s the fact that as New Zealand citizens women in Niue are decades behind in terms of legal protection in comparison to our fellow citizens in New Zealand.

In New Zealand women in de facto relationships are treated equally to married women, so during the breakdown of the relationship, a woman in a de facto relationship like a married woman is entitled to 50% of the assets accumulated during the relationship or marriage. Women in Niue don’t have this right.

Here in Niue, if a woman wants to leave an abusive husband, the process is lengthy and quite frankly ridiculously antiquated. There are a total of fourteen grounds where a petition for divorce may be presented to the courts.

One of the most hilarious of these 14 options for a woman to seek a divorce is if the woman “has since the solemnisation of the marriage and without the consent of the petitioner been artificially inseminated with the semen of some man, other than the husband”. The irony is, it is the husband who will have to file for divorce as petitioner, but this is probably the easiest of the options to seek a divorce.

A known fact is that not many couples seek divorce in Niue because culturally we are supposed to endure the hardship and continue to fight for your marriages even at the expense of your happiness, your state of mind and Lord forbid that a woman should initiate divorce proceedings. These biases remain for as long as our laws allow them to continue.

It’s understood that in the draft Family Law introduces a single grounds for divorce is irretrievable breakdown of marriage, reducing 14 antiquated reasons in the current 1966 law to just one reason.

If this law is passed this year, it has taken sixty years for women to finally receive legal protection in Niue.

So, as we continue to promote the appearances of how successful Niuean women are, I hope that we have enough courage to fight the real battle which is legal protection for women.

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