"It is an expected part of life, and part of women's lives, to experience violence"-- Alethia Jimenez, UN Women in Papua New Guinea
HONIARA, Solomon Islands (Thomson Reuters Foundation) -Not long ago, Mele, a 24-year-old mother, was breastfeeding her six-month-old baby when her husband barged into their Honiara bedroom. He hit her repeatedly across the face with the back of his hand as his two younger brothers wrenched the baby from her arms. When her husband left moments later, Mele had a swollen right eye and cheeks blackened by bruises.
Some version of the story of Mele, who declined to use her real name, replays itself for every two out of three women in the Pacific Islands.
Up to 68 percent of women between the ages of 15 and 49 report routine intimate partner abuse and in some areas 26 percent admit to being beaten while pregnant, according to the latest Family Health and Safety Studies prepared by the Secretariat of the Pacific Community for the Ministry of Women, Youth & Children's Affairs.
Other forms of violence against women, including rape, gang rape and non-partner physical assault are also common.
"It is an expected part of life, and part of women's lives, to experience violence. It is a combination of the status of women, a sense of entitlement from men, impunity and lack of access to justice," Alethia Jimenez, who works in Papua New Guinea on UN Women's Safe Cities for Women and Girls programme, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The number of laws and protection acts banning violence against women in the Pacific has multiplied in the past few years. Marital rape has been considered a crime in the Solomon Islands since 2012. Samoa passed legislation against sexual offences in 2013, and Tonga and Kiribati introduced family protection laws in 2013. As of May 2013, rapists in Papua New Guinea can face the death penalty.
But fear of payback, where the tribe of an accused person avenges them through further attacks against the claimant, makes survivors even more afraid to report now that there are harsher penalties for perpetrators, experts said.
"People are fearful of reporting someone because the family could take retribution or compensation for reporting that crime," said Kate Schuetze, Amnesty International's Pacific researcher.
The entrenched use of traditional justice mechanisms also prevents women from accessing criminal court systems, even in urban areas.
VILLAGERS STILL PREFER TRADITIONAL OVER CIVIL JUSTICE
In the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea, where up to 80 percent of the population lives in remote rural villages, traditional justice has been in practice for hundreds of years, with village chiefs handling cases of violence against women.
Reliance on informal mechanisms continues even in Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands. When a woman is physically or sexually assaulted, the men in her family often beat or threaten the man responsible, rather than report the crime.
"Our father is dead, and we have no brothers, so we think maybe that is why her husband feels he can do this," said Mary, 28, speaking about her brother-in-law's abuse of her older sister Mele.
If women act against their abuser on their own, without the support of the men in their family, risk of payback from the abuser's family is strong, according to advocates.
"Men in the jail are sending word out to other men warning them to make sure their abused wives never make it as far as the shelter," reported the Lowy Institute, a Sydney-based think tank, in an August 2014 report about the situation in Papua New Guinea.
While practitioners say that laws are a first step, traditional justice's focus on reconciliation fosters impunity since the perpetrator is not socially stigmatized, said Amnesty International's Schuetze.
"The reality is that there needs to be a dramatic shift in social culture in the country so there is a zero tolerance policy around violence and sexual assault," she said, noting that only then can civil laws be effective. (Reporting by Dana MacLean, Editing by Lisa Anderson) ;))
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