Using Facebook to address social issues in the Pacific

Copyright: Atul Loke / Panos

Speed read

  • Printed online discussions helps bridge the Pacific region’s people without Internet
  • Politicians have taken action on issues raised in Vanuatu’s Yumi Toktok Stret
  • Another popular Facebook group is Papua New Guineans Against Domestic Violence

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Popular Facebook groups in the Pacific are drawing thousands of members to impel public action on social issues.

[NEW YORK] “We like to call it the internet on paper.”

This is how Matt Temar, administrator of Vanuatu’s most popular Facebook group, Yumi Toktok Stret, explains their new venture.

The printed newspaper was officially launched in March by Vanuatu’s prime minister, Joe Natuman. It aims to keep the 88 per cent of Ni Vanuatu who don’t have access to the internet informed about the discussions that take place online.

Ni Vanuatu are the citizens of Vanuatu and Yumi Toktok Stret (which means “we talk straight”) has about 15,000 members in a country where less than 30,000 people of the 253,000 total population have internet access. It is one of several popular Facebook groups in the Pacific region that have attracted thousands of members and influenced national social and political agendas.

Bridging the digital divide

The Yumi Toktok Stret newspaper bridges the digital divide in Vanuatu that keeps thousands of people out of the political loop. Temar explains this is why the newspaper was set up: “Paper is our second option.”

But Temar says that Facebook groups are specially helping bridge the gap by getting more people online. He spoke with SciDev.Net in between duties running an emergency telecommunications centre set up after powerful Cyclone Pam devastated Vanuatu on 13 March.

A strong advocate of information communication technology (ICT) access for Vanuatu, Temar says ICT is important in Pacific countries because the islands are scattered and separated by seas. “ICT connects the islands,” he says. “This is the reason we run the Facebook groups called ICT in Vanuatu, Ask A Geek Vanuatu and Vanuatu Women in ICT.”

Explaining Yumi Toktok Stret’s popularity, Temar says that on several occasions, politicians have participated in the group’s discussions. “One thing I am proud of is how the prime minister and other members of his cabinet, other members of parliament and the opposition, are coming down to this level to interact with people.”

Temar says that politicians have answered direct questions on policies and taken action on issues raised in the Facebook group. “We influence national policies,” he notes.

Another group was set up to tackle the challenge of electricity. “Almost 80 per cent of the population, don't have access to the power grid…We can talk ICT but without power we can't do much,” he notes.

Temar says that Facebook groups are a popular online forum because internet service providers give Ni Vanuatu free access to Facebook. For example, 1,000 Vanuatu vatu (US$9) worth of data comes with 14 days of free Facebook.

Confronting domestic violence

Another popular Facebook group is Papua New Guineans Against Domestic Violence, which strikes a chord in a country where estimates of domestic violence range from 70 per cent of women in the country experiencing abuse up to 100 per cent of women who are severely affected.

SciDev.Net spoke with Lydia Kailap, an administrator of the Facebook group, which has over 18,000 members. Kailap explains that the group started in response to the case of Joy Wartovo, a young woman with two small children who was married to a policeman who badly beat her up.

“She knew she was going to die anyway, so she decided to go to the media and see if there was anyone who would help her. The newspapers carried her story, one of the first times that domestic violence had been so prominently aired in public,” Kailap says.

The Facebook group was started to demand that Joy’s policeman husband be arrested and charged, and over 5,000 people joined within 72 hours.

Kailap, an Australian living in PNG, and her husband Peter Kailap, a Papua New Guinean, were added as administrators by the page’s founder who went by the name ‘Critic PNG’. “Peter and I were already involved in community work involving domestic violence. So we started posting information about domestic violence and about child abuse,” she says.

The Facebook group became the only avenue for most victims of domestic violence in Papua New Guinea and has also helped rescue women in danger.

A young woman who was hiding in a major shopping centre after her husband had beaten her used the group to call for help. Kailap tagged all the police and support workers on the Facebook page to alert them about the young woman’s post. “They converged on the shopping centre and got her to safety and helped her get a restraining order,” she narrates.

Kailap says that at times she has spent up to 12 hours a day providing counselling and support to people through the Facebook group. “I am not a psychologist or formally trained in counselling. I was just a victim of domestic violence myself, and understand the huge challenge women in PNG are up against.”

“So I help them in any way I could, by encouraging them to do something about it, by assuring them that it was not their fault and there was nothing wrong with them. Basically letting them know that someone was listening and did care,” Kailap says.

“Exactly what I would have loved to have when I was being abused, what Joy needed when she was being abused, what more than 80 per cent of PNG women need because they are being abused,” she adds.

This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's South-East Asia & Pacific desk.