On Friday, 16 March, over 200 people gathered at the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) conference hall in Noumea, New Caledonia to discuss women's civil rights within the framework of customary and common law.

In New Caledonia, people from one of the eight Kanak nations have a particular status which defines their entitlements, civil rights and duties. This has specific impacts on Kanak women, who, in some cases, feel discriminated against and not sufficiently protected by the customary system. On the other hand, because they are under customary status they do not have access to the common law system which is implemented for the rest of the population. Further, the complexity of the judicial systems can be confusing and many women do not know their rights.

This interactive event was inspired by the traditional customary practice of conflict resolution. Testimonies of Kanak women about adoption, divorce and domestic violence were presented to a panel composed of customary assessors, common law practitioners (including judges, lawyers and academics), social workers and representatives of civil society organisations. They discussed the issues from both the customary and common law perspective and illustrated shortcomings of these legal frameworks in addressing today's reality. Testimonies from other women also showed common gender inequities and the difficulties women experienced in trying to access the law and assert their rights.

The customary assessors showed great openness in discussing the issues, and while they believe traditional institutions are protective of women's rights, they admit that they are not equipped to address the reality of today's circumstances and situations.

About 50 young women and men took part in the event. A striking issue for them was their lack of information about their rights.

Seema Naidu, Resource Trainer from the SPC Regional Rights Resource Team (RRRT), provided a human rights perspective and a regional outlook to the discussions, and shared the experience of RRRT in other countries on the use of human rights principles by the courts and the development of laws using human rights principles of non-discrimination, participation, and empowerment.

She said, 'We have had some achievements and at the same time we have a long road to travel. Common law, civil and custom law can all be further strengthened to ensure that women, children, youth, persons with disabilities and others enjoy the same rights and freedoms as others.'

The event was organised by the New Caledonia focal point of the Union des Femmes Francophones d'Océanie (Union of Francophone Pacific Women), which includes French-speaking women's organisations from French Polynesia, Wallis and Futuna, Vanuatu and New Caledonia. The union is an initiative coordinated by the Human Development Programme of SPC.