Teenage mothers in the Solomon Islands are being shunned by their communities

Child marriage, domestic violence, and gender discrimination are stopping many young women in the Pacific nation from rising beyond traditional roles.

Omar Dabbagh reports from Honiara, Solomon Islands

As Prime Minister Scott Morrison wraps up his visit to the Solomon Islands on Monday, young women there have detailed to SBS News the widespread "imbalances" they are facing in the Pacific nation.

According to aid agency Plan International, two out of every five girls become either child brides or teen mothers. In the village of Visale, 18-year-old Mary is the latter.

She told SBS News she adores her six-month-old daughter Miriam, who inspires her to succeed, but opportunities are almost non-existent for teenage mothers in the country.

“I left [school] because I had no financial support from my family, and within two years I was pregnant. I want to go back to school because I want to serve my family,” she said.

"I want to become a nurse so I can support my daughter through school.

Ella Kauhue from Plan International in the Solomon Islands said teenage mothers can be shunned by their schools, potential employers, and even their families.

“I would say it’s discrimination but it’s also about opportunity,” she said.

"A lot of families here do not have the financial support to continue giving to girls if they are pregnant."

Ms Kauhue said stories of gender inequality stretch across the Solomon Islands. That includes the 60 per cent of women who suffer domestic violence and the 93 per cent who never finish high school.

“Gender equality in this country is very imbalanced,” Ms Kauhue said.

“Solomon Islands is a male-dominated society from the very beginning. So you would see, in the family, the man is the head of the family, and is the decision maker as well."

Disability barriers

Naomi Tai, a disability rights advocate in the Solomon Islands, says opportunities can be even more limited for women with disabilities.

“From my experience, I found it very hard because I was born with my disability and also a woman. The mindset is still a barrier, that they still think that we are not able to attend anything or do anything,” she said. 

"If you are born with a disability, physical disability or other types of disability, the families they just have the mind of like they just left you behind, and then they look on the other ones who are able and they bring them to the school."

Naomi Tai works says women with disabilities struggle to find work due to social stigmas.
Source: SBS News/Omar Dabbagh

But Ms Tai, 29, is proving her doubters wrong. She is employed full-time with a disability rights group and is also a part-time para-athlete.

At her first international competition, Darwin's Arafura Games in April, she won bronze medals in both the discus and table tennis.

“[It] build[s] your confidence and then you can have your voice heard, where it was unheard before. When you are in sport, it [gives] you the space where you can talk,” she said. 

"People can see that ‘oh, this girl, boy’ she can do anything and that sport is a wonderful thing for us."

Naomi Tai, right, with her bronze medal at the 2019 Arafura Games in Darwin.
Source: Supplied

Lack of role models

Only two women feature in the Solomon Island's 50-member parliament.

Minister for women Freda Tuki said her government is making progress to close the gender gap but needs support from non-government organisations as well as communities.

"Here in the Solomon Islands, women is really needed to be a part of the decision making,” she said.

“I believe we can do it, it’s not depend on the government it depends on how we work on it. Like I know working with all these NGOs and stakeholders we can come together and show that it’s not a problem.”

Freda Tuki says the government is making progress to improve women's rights.
Source: SBS News/Omar Dabbagh

But Ms Tuku said she believes it is partially up to women to push themselves into leadership positions.

“Our people are now recognising women to be empowering in our community to allow them to convince them to become leaders. It depends much on our own people, they make their own choice of who they want to be,” she said.

"The government should take it seriously. We need to recognise what is going on. We cannot just leave our girls there. We need to help them out."

Next generation

The next generation of Solomon Island girls are well placed to shake things up.

In a small community ten minutes drive from the capital Honiara, a group of female youth leaders say that time for change is now.

"We all are equal. I want to see equality in the Solomon Islands, like women and girls should not be intimidated or feel bad to speak out or to do things they know that is right,” Elizabeth, 21, said. 

"I want to see change to happen in our families, communities and this nation, by telling all girls to rise up and become who they want to be."

These women have become youth leaders in the Solomon Islands.
Source: SBS News/Omar Dabbagh

"I want to inspire them, making them [not] have low esteem of themselves,” added 17-year-old Katrina.

"Make them think positive of themselves because they will be someone if they try their best."

Omar Dabbagh travelled to the Solomon Islands with the assistance of Plan International

Published 3 June 2019 at 5:20pm
By Omar Dabbagh