Supporting the new Family Protection Act in Solomon Islands

Australian volunteer Jessica McLaren is currently working as a legal mentor in the Family Protection Unit of the Solomon Islands’ Public Solicitor’s Office. After volunteering with the Office of the People’s Lawyer in Kiribati, Jessica saw the Solomon Islands assignment as an opportunity to continue contributing to the legal sector in the Pacific region.

Here Jessica talks to us about her volunteering experiences in the Solomon Islands and Kiribati.

Tell us about your first volunteering experience.

Jessica: I was the People’s Lawyer at the Office of the People’s Lawyer. I was the last volunteer lawyer to work in that office after 15 years of volunteers being posted there. The People’s Lawyer role is now filled by an I.Kiribati citizen.

It was very rewarding to be a part of a legacy of volunteers and local staff dedicated to creating a successful free legal service for disadvantaged I.Kiribati people. 

I also loved hearing the Kiribati people laugh and sing all the time. 

Why did you decide to volunteer again, this time at the Solomon Islands’ Public Solicitor’s Office (PSO)?

Jessica: I was keen to continue working in the region and in the community legal sector when I saw the position in Solomon Islands advertised by Australian Volunteers International.

And of course the work is so important - I am providing legal mentoring to staff in the Family Protection Unit and designing and delivering a training and implementation package for the new Family Protection Act - an Act addressing family violence.

What opportunities have you had to engage with the community?

Jessica: I have travelled to the Provinces to talk to school students about issues of criminal and family law. It was a great opportunity to spend time with my colleagues out of the office and learn about the differences between town and village living in Solomon Islands.

Each Province in Solomon Islands is very different, so I was fascinated to hear from the communities and learn what they were concerned about in terms of law and order issues. The experience really shaped how I approach training and development for PSO staff, and increased my understanding of domestic violence in Solomon Islands.

What have you learnt about gender issues in Solomon Islands?

Jessica: The group I work with primarily is women, particularly those that have experienced sexual or gender-based violence (SGBV). There is a lot of international support around ending SGBV and there is political will in Solomon Islands to do something about it. But, significantly for us, there is a gap in education and understanding around the issues that lead to SGBV which still need to be addressed.

I have also learned how resilient the women are in Solomon Islands. I am constantly meeting remarkable women who are surviving violence, caring for their families and fighting for change. It is very inspirational.

There needs to be more legal education and services available to women in the Provinces, not just in Honiara. This is a significant project that will take many years to develop but I have started to work on it during my time here.

What do you think has been your most significant contribution to the PSO?

Jessica: I recently asked a colleague how my work was contributing to the PSO and she said “mentoring us”. Honestly, that is the best answer I could have received. I have worked really hard to make myself available to the staff at PSO, to learn about their lives and their work so that I understand the issues they face and help them find ways to improve the services they provide to the community.

I have been working closely with some of the young lawyers. This has been particularly rewarding because they are just starting out in their career and are keen to learn and try new ideas for how to manage their work and interact with clients.

What do you value most about volunteering?

Jessica: I enjoy working as an Australian volunteer because we become part of the community and the locals really respect the work that we do. It’s a great way to make a contribution to the community.

I think it has made me more resilient, more attuned to the needs of other and enabled new skills and interests to develop. Professionally it is very rewarding because I’ve been given really interesting tasks, often quite high level work, which may not happen in Australia.

I would recommend volunteering to everyone.

This volunteering assignment is part of the Australian Volunteers for International Development (AVID) program, an Australian Government initiative. Photo: Australian volunteer Jessica McLaren (middle) with her Public Solicitor's Office colleagues, Kathleen Kohata (left) and Martha Manaka (right). Jessica, Kathleen and Martha competed in volley ball at the Inter Ministry Sport Competition.