Women of the Pacific

In previous posts I mentioned how wonderful the women in my family are.  I have also previously mentioned that there are huge domestic abuse issues on Kiribati. Yeah, this isn’t such a happy topic is it?  But nevertheless, a topic that must, must, must be out in the open.

Unfortunately almost every I-Kiribati woman I know has been a victim of domestic violence in some form.  Nearly every woman I know.  Think of all the women in your family.  Then the girls you went to school with. Then your friends.  Then your friends’ friends.  Teachers.  Bank tellers.  Students. Mothers.  Daughters.

Upon leaving Kiribati I had a stopover in Fiji.  At the hotel I ended up speaking to two lovely ladies who had been working with AusAid and the UN to work on projects that raise awareness and education on domestic violence.  These two ladies were incredibly helpful and they kindly let me join them for dinner as I pried them for more information.  As I mentioned to them that most of the I-Kiribati women I know have been a victim of some sort of violence they gave me a startling figure.  2 out of 3 women in Kiribati are subjected to violence.  2 in 3!  What the hell?

To be honest knowing Kiribati, this figure doesn’t surprise me but that doesn’t make it a less horrendous statistic.

I’d thought about this issue a lot on the island and I kept asking myself the same questions over and over;  why is the figure so high? Why is it not just Kiribati but a lot of islands that seem to have this type of culture?

Well my first theory I will put out there is the language restrictions.  The Kiribati language is a simple.  There are only 13 letters in their alphabet and many words sound the same.  Also singular words can be used to mean various things.  For example ‘Nakonako’ means to walk,  ‘Nako’ means to go, ‘Nako mai’ is ‘come here’ and ‘Biri nako’ means to run away.  My thoughts are that when the I-Kiribati people argue or feel anger they have a limited amount of words in their vocabulary to express themselves.  Thus they resort to physical violence.

Adding to this, as I have said before, Kiribati people are incredibly happy all the time.  Everyone laughs and smiles.  So when they do feel angry, upset, frustrated it almost feels like such an unnatural feeling that again they don’t really know how to control it.  Add this ‘unnatural’ feeling to not being able to find the words to express how they feel and what do you know – being physical seems like the only answer at the time.

My last theory is, is that due to the high unemployment rate in the country the men of the house can somewhat feel emasculated.  In every household I can guarantee that there will be one, two maybe even 10 people sitting around the house all day.  The employment opportunities on the islands (Tarawa and outer islands) are pretty non-existent so a lot of men spend a lot of time at home.  At this point I must say that Kiribati women are strong; physically and emotionally.  Without a doubt they rule the roost in the household.  They can carry three children at a time while pulling water from a well, can cook meals to feed armies while disciplining rowdy teenagers, all the while singing in four part harmony with the rest of the household.  The households depend a lot on the women and the women are happy to be the leaders.  I honestly would place a baby in the care of a 10 year old I-Kiribati girl over an 16 year old Australian girl any day.  No offense to Aussie girls but it would be most likely that the 10 year old would have been changing diapers and holding newborns since she was 5.  At 16 all I was used to changing was my profile picture on MSN Messenger.

Day to day the women are the bosses of the house.  They yell orders and keep everything going like clockwork while the men generally sit at home waiting for work.  Yes they collect the coconuts, the toddi, fix the house and go fishing but still, this doesn’t take all day, everyday – plus the weather is getting hotter to work in (don’t get me started on THAT!).  So after sitting around for weeks on end with the women ruling the household you can only imagine that they would start to feel a little emasculated.  So when this frustration accumulates and they want to show everyone in the family who is boss, guess who is in their line of fire?  If you want to be at the top of the pyramid just knock the top off it.

On a positive note, I did notice that domestic violence awareness has hiked up since I was last there.  Every Thursday women are encouraged to wear black to publicly show that they are against domestic violence.  Once I was made aware of this it was fantastic to see how many women wore black.  I even saw men wearing black which made my heart melt.  Also, on the 25th November there was a march in Bairiki (a main town on Tarawa) to raise awareness for White Ribbon Day.  I attended – adorned with my black attire – marched with the women along with the police and marine corps.  President Anote Tong spoke about how Kiribati must get rid of the opinion that domestic abuse is ‘Islander culture’.  It is not Islander culture.  Traditional dancing, island mythology, songs, rituals and customs – they are what defines a the culture NOT how women are traditionally treated in the household.

It’s hard writing this while also trying to tell you that many islander men aren’t arseholes.  There are so many of them that work hard for their families, are good fathers, sons, uncles, cousins.  I love the men in my family just as much as I love the women.  The real shame is that because violence is apparently part of the ‘culture’ even the most gentlest men in the family are told by other I-Kiribati men that hitting your wife/sister/daughter is the only way to be the ‘man of the house’.  And when you are told by other men that you can’t ‘control’ your wife – mixed in with islander pride – it is very hard to go against the grain.

I think the thing I find really annoying about this whole topic is that it’s not just Kiribati.  It’s a whole Pacific Islander thing.  It is safe to assume that this is the way of life in most other Pacific Island countries –  Samoa, Solomon Islands, Fji, Tonga, Nauru, Tuvalu, PNG etc.  I really really hate writing this because I know men and women from each of these countries and islanders are the most loving, happiest and caring people.  I feel like I’m going against my own race by saying it but I also hate that this seems to be a hidden issue or at least an issue that seems to be accepted in islander way of life.

  • In the Solomon Islands 64% women aged between 15-49 who ‘have been in a relationship reported experiencing physical or sexual violence, and sometimes both, by an intimate partner’
  • ‘In Papua New Guinea, 67 per cent of women are beaten by their husbands – 100 per cent in the highlands – with gang rape and pay-back rape common…In Tuvalu, half the females surveyed lost their virginity in forced sex. In Samoa, 46 per cent of women are physically abused, and up to 8 per cent are beaten unconscious by their spouse. In Fiji, 66 per cent of women have been physically abused by their partners; 26 per cent were beaten while pregnant. And in Kiribati, 68 per cent of women have been physically or sexually abused.’ (Read full article here)

These statistics make me sick.

If you have any feedback on this, I’d love to hear it.  Especially other islanders.  If I haven’t been clear enough, if I have portrayed islanders in the wrong light please say so.  It’s a hard subject to write on especially when I have so much respect for  islander men but you can’t deny that it’s a problem that needs to be highlighted and fixed.

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14 thoughts on “Women of the Pacific

  1. Love your blog Marita! I really like the way you write with your opinions mixed with facts and also ask for the opinions of others. You’re really spreading the word about ‘the little island that could’ and the traditions, values & customs it holds. Love your writing! X

  2. Thank you for sharing your thoughts Marita. It must have been very hard for you, as you say, but it is important that people are aware that violence is not acceptable. I think you may be right about the frustrations that the I-Kiribati men feel. I work with people with disabilities, many of whom have autism. One of the main reasons they display “challenging behaviour” is due to their inability to communicate their needs, wants, feelings. They lash out at others or themselves. Also so much of our self worth is tied up in the contribution we make to our communities, through having meaningful work or occupation. These aspects should not be used as excuses to allow violence to occur, but they do explain somewhat, the reasons that the men of Kiribati may lash out. Women are occupied by caring for the family – preparing meals, child care, household chores etc. Their contribution is valuable and they are more likely to have higher self esteem. Obviously it is not all men who feel the need to lash out. So what is it about the ones who aren’t violent? Can they help the violent ones to see another way?
    I’m loving your stories and learning about this beautiful country from an “insiders” point of view as well as from Dennis Pack’s view point.
    Regards Kerry

  3. Mauri. I was wondering if domestic violence is particularly linked to alcohol and loss of cultural traditions. What do you think?

  4. Love your writing Marita … having been in Kiribati for almost 3 months, I am amazed at how many of your descriptions I can relate to. My blog focuses on pictures … yours says what I’d like to say, but it’s so much more meaningful coming from you.
    I too was at the White Ribbon march … am sure we crossed paths (think there were only 3 of us I-Matangs there!). I sat behind President Tong in the stands. The following Saturday we marched again from Betio to the police station. Were you there, too? That same afternoon I was invited to attend the opening of the women’s crisis centre near the medical centre. That was a very special occasion, as well. Some of the nuns have been in Kiribati since the 1950s, and I can see why they stay.
    When I first learned of the domestic violence I was totally shocked. I still have trouble understanding how a culture that has so much laughing, singing, dancing, and beautiful smiles, can also have so much violence. But, hearing the screams at night tells me it is there. Not being able to immediately do anything about it is very heart wrenching. Hopefully, the awareness campaigns and faster responses by the police are helping. I talked to a policeman on Marakei and he said there was much less violence there. He suggested the abundance of alcohol on Tarawa was one contributing factor.
    Thanks again for posting … and saying so well the things I am experiencing here in this lovely country. I’ll be posting my Christmas photos soon … I am sorry you missed the experience. Best Christmas I ever had!
    Tekeraoi ans tia bo moa …

    Dennis

  5. Mauri everyone! Thanks for the comments, it really does encourage me to keep writing and bringing up these kind of topics.
    Anna, you are absolutely right when you bring up the alcohol problem – someone else mentioned it to me today that I probably should have included it in there since it plays such a huge factor. To be honest, one part of me forgot to do so and another part of me kind of put it in a slightly different category.

    The reason I consider it in another category is because I believe that alcohol contributes to the problem in that it causes the frustrations and feelings that the men have to come to the forefront. What I suppose I was looking at in my post is – what plants the seeds for the abuse? Where does this ‘cultural’ acceptance of domestic violence come from? Alcohol certainly contributes the physical violence but I don’t believe it to be the cause because there are men out there that hit their wife but don’t drink – they just believe it to be their ‘way’.

    However, alcohol is a major problem. As a whole, the Kiribati people can’t really hold their alcohol – pretty much two pot screamers really – so they go out, have only a little bit (well in western world standards) of alcohol and come home releasing their inner frustrations with a fist to their wife. At the moment, many men sit around at night, singing and drinking kava until 5am, then come home and sleep until midday while the wife has been doing everything. I’m not generalising here, I’m speaking from direct experience. This drinking of kava and singing is seen as ‘secret mens business’ so a lot of men go to them – then their sons want to go with their fathers when they get old enough.

    I’m not too sure about loss of cultural traditions because I really do think that domestic violence is perceived as a ‘traditional’ marriage/partnership and even parenting. Yes, putting in the word ‘parenting’ starts us off on a whole other discussion but I definitely know children in Kiribati (particularly girls) that are beaten by their fathers – note that this is on a different level to others ‘disciplining’ their children. Getting back to cultural traditions, all I can say is that I know examples of violence from my family that go back four generations and cultural traditions were very strong back then.

    Kerry, there are men that don’t abuse their wives and I’m going to make a guess as to why – I need to do a little more research into this! These men are either educated or have wives that are educated. The reason why I say this is because men that are educated are more likely to have a day job so have enough self-esteem to feel that they are ‘the breadwinners’ plus they also don’t have as much time to go out and drink alcohol at night nor do they feel the need to be ‘one of the men’ to show their worth to others.

    As for the women, again, if they are more educated they have more chances of having a job. If they have a job and don’t spend all day at the house looking after the household and then the marriage I suppose isn’t seen as a ‘traditional’ one. If the man marries a women who is already working then they are used to the idea of her not being in the house. At the moment, if a women leaves the house for too long during the day, men get very suspicious, jealous and once again take it as ‘not being able to control their wife’.

    I spoke to a lot of female relatives about how a key that may help to avoid an abusive relationship is to get a job before you have children or marry. This helps send a clear sign to men that you are smart, educated and clearly do not need them in the house if they are treated wrongly.

    Thoughts? Once again, thanks for reading and the comments. It’s really great to have these types of discussions since they seem to be so hidden.

    Marita

  6. Oh and Dennis, in regards to Marekei there is a local law there that makes it forbidden to be seen drunk in public. If one is caught being drunk in public, they are taken aside by an ‘unimani’ (old man) and spoken to. A date is then set for when the offender will be publicly shamed. On this date, the offender has to provide a meal for the whole community – they have to pay for all the food and drinks – everything. And when I say ‘they’ the whole family have to pay for the ‘botaki’ (party) and so the family has to deal with the shaming as well. It is a very embarrassing, shameful and incredibly public punishment that effects the whole family. Add this to the fact that it’s harder to get alcohol on the island so I would assume that the domestic violence figures would be slightly lower.

    I suppose that this goes back to Anna’s point of lack of tradition especially on Tarawa. Traditional culture is not as strong and they definitely wouldn’t be able to have the same system to alcohol abuse that Marekei does.

    Having said that, I witnessed acts of domestic violence when I was on Marekei in October so it definitely is there. It comes back to this whole ‘cultural’ attitude of violence.

  7. Marita, I remember Dad went fishing with his cousin all day and as soon as they brought their canoe up out of the water, the cousin started hitting his wife for a good half hour. No one dared to stop him in the fear that he would turn around and start abusing them. In Kiribati, some people do accept that when a man belts his wife up, it is okay-he has rights to do so, he is the husband and he can do whatever he likes with her. Another story was the story about a man who tied his wife to a rock in the sea and left her to drown. Every now and then my mum would complain about the aches and pains and as always a comment that her husband (my father) caused it all, Bastard. I often asked my mother why she did not leave my father as soon as she started getting hit and always her answer was “because you were born, and I did not have a job to support you” tears of pain I shed for my mother. I admire my mother for staying for my sake, and I often wished that I was never born. Mother put lights to my fear by saying that she stayed with him too because she was in love…in love. People all over the world suffer for the sake of the thing we called love.

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