28 July 2009


Solomon Islands Parliament Strides Towards

Gender Equality in Sexual Assault Law

Secretariat of the Pacific Community, Suva, Fiji Islands

No more discriminatory evidence practices in sexual assault law
said the main law making body in Solomon Islands. With a chorus of
support the Solomon Islands Parliament made important strides towards
gender equality in its law by changing four legal practices in its newly
passed Evidence Act 2009. The changes should also remove major obstacles
to successfully prosecuting offenders in sexual assault cases.

Ethel Sigamanu, Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Women, welcomed
the changes. "The Ministry of Women and the Law Reform Commission of the
Ministry of Justice on behalf of the government is stepping up efforts
to ensure that Solomon Islands laws are reformed in regard to addressing
Violence Against Women and child abuse. To this end we need to forge,
build and strengthen partnerships. Given also that Violence against
Women is multifaceted, it cannot be approached through a single lens."

Sigamanu congratulated the Law Reform Commission and the agencies which
had supported the process. Amongst those agencies were the Evidence Bill
Committee, the Women Lawyers Association (WILASI), the MWYCA, and
UNIFEM. The Pacific Regional Rights Resource Team of the Secretariat of
the Pacific Community (RRRT) supported the reform process for over 10
years, providing technical and policy advice.

The Evidence Act 2009 removed the corroboration rule which treated as
suspicious the evidence of a person who claimed to have been sexually
assaulted. The law previously held that it was dangerous to convict
without some other independent supporting evidence.  This requirement,
based on an outmoded belief that women almost always lie about sexual
matters, has been abolished in the new Act.

The Act also prevents courts from drawing an inference that a woman who
delayed reporting her sexual assault must be lying. The new law also
requires judicial permission before a complainant can be questioned
about her past sexual history with other men, on the basis that such
matters are generally unnecessary and irrelevant to the issues in the
case. Finally, the Act gives a Court a discretion to permit the
complainant and other vulnerable witnesses to testify without facing the
assailant, by using modern technology. Such a provision is particularly
important for child victims.

A leading expert on gender-based violence has applauded the reforms,
while acknowledging that there was still room for improvement. RRRT's
Human Rights Advisor, Imrana Jalal stated: "Law making in the end is
generally a democratic compromise. Important and advanced standards have
been set in this new Bill although some of the new provisions still fall
somewhat short of international best practice. Nevertheless, these are
major advances and are to be seen as interim measures until better, more
comprehensive and integrated laws are passed."

Jalal made the comments at a Violence Against Women legislation workshop
in Honiara which was funded and supported by SPC, UNIFEM, the Ministry
of Women, Youth and Children's Affairs (MWYCA) and the Solomon Islands
Law Reform Commission.

The workshop heard that most Pacific countries still allow the highly
discriminatory corroboration practice in relation to the evidence of the
complainant. It is still practised in Vanuatu, Solomon Island, FSM and
other PICTs. It has been removed by legislation in RMI, PNG, Kiribati
and the Cook Islands, and now Solomon Islands; and by the courts in
Fiji. Even though the courts in Tonga had attempted to remove the rule
in the 1994 case of Tangi, subsequent cases brought back the need for a
corroboration warning in sexual offence cases.

"This reversal in Tonga underscores the need for watertight, unambiguous
legislation to remove it", said Lionel Aingimea, Senior Trainer at
RRRT/SPC, who was also a resource person at the workshop.

Miriam Lidimani, President of the Women Lawyers of the Solomon Islands
(WILASI) and a practicing barrister, gave many local examples of how the
old law had demeaned women and child victims in the past. She looked
forward to a new era for gender equality in the law in the Solomon
Islands. All those present at the workshop stressed the importance of
gender training for all legal officials who administer the new law,
including Judges, Magistrates, lawyers and police officers. Otherwise
the new law would not meet its full potential.

The Solomon Islands is a signatory to the Convention on the Elimination
of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) which requires the elimination
of all laws and practices that discriminate against women.  The Solomon
Islands Government, now preparing its Initial Report under the
Convention, will be able to point to its success in enacting the
Evidence Act 2009 as a milestone on the road to gender equality.

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