Changing mindsets and improving police response in Solomon Islands to combat violence against women
UN Women/Jacqui Berrell
“I’ve had to rescue women very early in the morning, sometimes 3 a.m., to get them out of an abusive house,” says Solomon Sisimia, Provincial Police Commander in the Solomon Islands.
As a fresh-faced 22-year-old recruit from the island of Malaita, he was driven by the determination to curb family violence. “I grew up in a rural environment where I saw a lot of abuse of children and women surrounding me… My childhood experiences deeply impacted me and pushed me to become a police officer because I wanted to bring a stop to that abuse.”
He soon received several awards for his outstanding work and was promoted to Constable at the National Criminal Investigation Department. But it was his position some 10 years later at the Crime Prevention Centre’s Family Violence Division—known as the Police Gender-Based Violence (GBV) Centre—that paved the way for fundamental changes in the way police assist survivors.
At the Centre, he was a pioneer of the SAFENET approach for national service-providers to better support survivors of violence. The approach ensures that all front-line service-providers—from police to hospital and crisis centre staff—coordinate with one another to provide the best possible survivor-centred response and ongoing support to gender-based violence survivors, in a timely way. It provides: direct services and support; referrals to other service-providers through a coordinated process; prevention and advocacy programmes; and a governance and accountability framework.
Sisimia also led the Police Force’s adoption of the Family Protection Act and efforts to make sure that police officers more respectfully assist domestic violence survivors.
“Before, maybe 10 years ago, women coming to the station reporting a case of domestic violence would be turned away, with police officers telling her: ‘It’s not our police work, go back to your husband and reconcile with him or get the [Village] Chief to deal with the matter; it’s a family matter; it’s private, so you deal with it’,” explains Sisimia. “But after we went through SAFENET and the Family Protection Act came in, the domestic violence once called a ‘family matter’ has become a criminal matter. Police officers are trained to receive domestic violence complaints as criminal matters, and this is a big change within policing.”
Sisimia notes that a police officer can be charged under the Family Protection Act if they fail to assist a domestic violence victim seeking police help.
But while laws and processes are essential to drive change, he says the biggest barrier is people’s mindsets. He advocates reviving healthy traditional cultural practices.
“A few generations ago, men in our culture had no right to give orders to women, and women had decision-making rights,” says Sisimia. “Until we change our mindsets and get our cultural balance back, violence against women, girls and boys will continue.”
He says his mindset was changed thanks to SAFENET and gender training, but his journey continues to help Solomon Islands reduce its 64 per cent gender-based violence rate  – currently one of the highest in the world.
The SAFENET network of government and non-government organizations is led by the Ministry of Women, Youth, Children and Family Affairs, in partnership with UN Women, with funding from the Pacific Partnership to End Violence Against Women and Girls. The partnership is supported by the European Union and the Australian Government.
“Since 2012, UN Women has been providing dedicated support to prevent and respond to violence against women and girls in Solomon Islands, by strengthening capacity within government and civil society to expand survivor services and stop violence before it starts,” said UN Women Fiji Multi-Country-Office Deputy Representative Sarah Boxall, at a national SAFENET inception workshop.
For their part, front-line service-providers are hailing SAFENET’s survivor-centred approach.
“When SAFENET calls me back and says ‘she’s safe’ … I feel at least I saved somebody from dying,” says Registered Nurse Esther Nevenga, who has treated gender-based violence survivors’ injuries for years. “Now I have the knowledge and the skills to help women who suffer from violence. Before, survivors coming through the clinic were not prioritized. Now, we make sure that their safety is paramount, and we move them to somewhere more confidential. It’s all about the survivor. She’s the one who makes the decision, not like before, when we would say ‘you must take this and do that’.”
Nevenga is now the Ministry of Health’s Gender-Based Violence Focal Point, supporting SAFENET and the current series of national consultations and training across all nine provinces to educate service-providers about the SAFENET Guidebook of Standard Operating Procedures for the Multisectoral Response, Referral and Coordination of Sexual and Gender-Based Violence, launched in late 2018.
As for Sisimia, after 29 years of dedicated service in the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force, he has recently been promoted to Provincial Police Commander for Malaita, where he says he will continue to work to change mindsets, behaviours and improve police responses.
 Solomon Islands Family Health and Safety Studies (2009). A study on violence against women and children (conducted by UNFPA and the Pacific Community across 11 Pacific countries, including Solomon Islands).