At the start of December last year, my Grandma died. At 74 years of age, Terira outlived the average life expectancy of a Kiribati woman by 6 years. Toothless, frail and with a stooped back, Terira’s looks were deceiving. She was a hard faced, strong minded and stubborn. As her grandchild living in another country, I really only got to see snippets of her life.
My first memory of her is of her kneeling down on the floor, yelling at me to come out from underneath the bed. I was four at the time and I was hiding from her because I’m fairly sure I had committed a naughty crime with my cousins and we were all in trouble. Looking back, I think the harshest punishment she would have given me would have been scaling the fish, but I cowered underneath the rickety springs of the bed regardless.
She cried whenever I left her, which confused me in my youth, since she didn’t really show much emotion. The last time I saw her, was in Australia when she stayed with my parents. Saying goodbye, she hugged me hard, with a lot more strength than I gave her credit for.
My grandfather died in 1994 and I remembered him as a broad, strong and kind man who let me climb all over him to play with his thick salt and peppered hair.
From what my Mum tells me, my grandma and grandpa were in love. Crazy in love. Crazy to the point of obsessive and jealous.
There is no hiding that like so many other Kiribati men, my grandfather was abusive to my grandma. He was physically overbearing over Terira. There is a story that my grandma spent a night clinging to the inside of a well while my grandfather, in a rage, raced around looking for his wife. I know this story, because he jumped over his four year old daughter, yelling while chasing my grandma. At four years old, my Mum remembers the whoosh of his sarong fly over her.
I have hesitated to tell this story, because…well it’s personal. It’s not my story to tell. But it sticks in my mind because it makes me think of my grandma in a different light. In this story she is not frail, stooped or weak. She is lightning quick and strong and nimble enough to climb into a well and hold herself there for hours.
Terira never liked to talk about such things. Burabura was her husband and she loved him for all of his and her life.
There is still a little niggling voice in my head that says I shouldn’t speak publicly of the violence that has occured in my grandparents relationship. Perhaps because Terira refused to speak out of turn about her late husband – the man she loved. But this is what awareness is about I suppose; talking about the uncomfortable issues so that the conversation becomes normalised. A problem that stares us so boldly in the face, that the need to fix it straight away is immediate.
Domestic violence is a consistent factor in many Kiribati relationships. One in three Kiribati women have reported being victim to some form of domestic violence. Reported cases. With a long history of violence against women throughout the Pacific, it is definitely higher because if anything, both women and men assume it’s a given feature of family dynamics, thus it goes unreported. Husband and wife. Fathers and daughters. Uncles and nieces. Boyfriends and Girlfriends.
Leading social researchers in the field of gender and disaster, Dr Debra Parkinson and Dr Claire Zara, found displacement, stress and trauma following a disaster can create an increased risk of gender-based violence and sexual assault. According to their research, the grief and loss caused by disaster, coupled with the financial and bureaucratic demands of the recovery and reconstruction phase are partially responsible for the increase.
The community spaces and ties that would have normally provided a semblance of stability and safety are disrupted and dismantled, and women bear the brunt of that. The increased contact between family members — often in cramped and makeshift accommodation — can also increase tension and the likelihood of violent behaviour.
Kiribati is indeed smack bang in the middle of a natural disaster. The rising tides caused by climate change is damaging homes, roads, public buildings and hospitals. High tides are surging onto land and because of this, the Kiribati citizens are inching closer together, huddling on land that hasn’t been washed away…yet.
When we talk about climate change, we need to place women and children safety as the highest priority. In fairness, Kiribati has been moving steadily forward in trying to recognise and fix its domestic violence issues. Whilst slow to the party, two years ago they introduced a Minister for Women in their parliament and in the past 5 years have campaigned for both women and men to wear black on Thursdays to symbolise this awareness. But as the nations environmental problems grow, statistically, men’s violence against women will increase.
Norms about women needing ‘saving’ and ‘protection’ and men’s prescribed roles as ‘protectors’ and ‘savers’ creates a recipe for disaster given their inability to fulfil those roles during times of crisis and chaos. Violent behaviour is often a way of re-asserting their masculinity and resuming some semblance of power and control. When this violent behaviour coincides with widely held community attitudes that excuse men’s violence against women, we can see up to a 400 per cent rise in women seeking refuge from a violent partner after disaster.
Climate change is one of the worlds biggest disasters in our lifetime and the small island nations (or rather, large oceanic nations) are on the front lines. High tides are threatening Kiribati land, culture, health and livelyhood and with this, women and children are the first to suffer.
Climate change is a global issue and the worlds biggest countries need to recognise their contribution to environmental damage. But what is the point of trying to save countries like Kiribati from climate change if the women and children aren’t protected?