By TJ Aumua
The kidnapping and attack on a local Vanuatu female tourism manager, Florence Lengkon, has stirred strong criticism of violence against women in the island nation.
Deputy Prime Minister Joe Natuman, who holds the Tourism, Commerce, Trades and Ni-Vanuatu Business portfolio, was quoted by the Vanuatu Daily Post today as saying: “Enough is enough.”
He sent a clear message which told police to “arrest those involved in the kidnapping and assault of a female employee of the Vanuatu Helicopters”.
Lengkon was allegedly abducted and beaten after posting criticism of Vanuatu bus and taxi drivers on social media.
In an email to the Auckland-based Pacific Media Centre, Post media director Dan McGarry, who broke the story on Monday after interviewing Lengkon, said today: “I think this might just be a watershed moment in Vanuatu society.
“It’s the very first time that the preponderance of opinion has been in defence of the vulnerable instead of deferring to bullies.”
McGarry has written numerous articles concerning the unequal treatment and violence against women in Vanuatu.
He told Pacific Media Watch that he had been waiting for almost a decade for a “brave woman” to confront the public with details surrounding their circumstances.
“That woman is Florence Lengkon, as it turns out. Her treatment at the hands of a small group of out-of-control bullies transcends the long-standing tensions at the wharf itself. And for once, people are willing to admit that.”
He said he was satisfied Deputy Prime Minister Joe Natuman had spoken out defending Lengkon’s case, citing that the frequent lack of pressure and action from the government’s highest authorities was a fundamental factor that had resulted in similar cases being ignored and then forgotten.
“It’s certainly true that, no matter what his motivations, DPM Joe Natuman reacted swiftly and decisively, giving everyone their marching orders and making it abundantly clear that this case was not going to be swept under the carpet. So far, events indicate that officials are in fact intent on stopping this kind of behaviour,” McGarry said.
“Nobody is pretending that Florence’s case marks the end of gender-based violence and systemic discrimination against women in Vanuatu society. But I think we can mark this moment as the point where a vocal and influential group began to say, ‘enough’.”
Lengkon posted on her Facebook page, saying she was going “to stay positive to the end”.
The Post reported local police had so far arrested seven people alleged to have been involved in the kidnapping and attack on Lengkon.
Even though the prosecution unit reportedly applied for a court warrant to detain the seven suspects until police completed the investigations and subsequent court hearings, the suspects were released under strict conditions and must appear in court on March 31.
The attack on Lengkon came after she commented on a Facebook post in an online discussion where members of the public blamed the Port Vila and Efate Land Transport Authority (PVELTA) for a recent string of violent activity at the wharf.
Dan McGarry’s article about the incident on Monday reported that Lengkon’s comment had called the bus and taxi drivers “big headed” and “unprofessional”.
In her interview with the Daily Post, Lengkon she was approached by three men who pulled her from office, located on the Port Vila waterfront, on mid-Sunday morning. They forced her into a bus and took her to the wharf.
She said there were lots of taxi and bus drivers, who she was ordered to apologise too, but received verbal abuse and eventually was hit. McGarry’s report quoted her as saying:
“I apologised. I apologised for a second time, and one of them gestured like he was going to hit me. That’s when I started to cry and bent down to hide my face. I don’t know who hit me, but someone did. Blood began to run down my face.”
Details have not been released on why Lengkon’s comment was singled out and targeted as a threat when her comment was only one of more than 100 responses to the public Facebook post.
Her attack emphasises the escalating tensions between bus and taxi drivers who are dealing with loss of tourism at the port due Vanuatu’s shaky economy.
In February, rocks were thrown at a passenger-full tour bus.
A Daily Post article stated “eye witnesses reported that the ‘bus drivers were banging on the back of the buses, yelling at them and then started to stone the vehicles'”.
TJ Aumua is contributing editor of the Pacific Media Centre’s Pacific Media Watch freedom project.