rape and sexual abuse in Samoa

“Your sexual abuse is disgusting and has brought shame on our family.”

Three weeks ago I wrote an article about rape and sexual abuse in Samoa which was printed in the Samoa Observer, posted here on my blog and shared on various online sites. It was written in response to a national religious leader in Samoa and his comments on rape/abuse but it addressed  widespread views held by many.

In the article I identified myself as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. This was the first time I have spoken about this outside of my husband and children. Writing about it in such a public forum was terrifying. I cried when I wrote it and publishing it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Thousands of people read that article and within minutes of it going live, many women were writing to thank me for voicing that which is too often silenced in our communities. They wrote to share their own experiences of rape and abuse, and to engage in dialogue about ways to fight this problem. I wrote from a place of anger, pain and healing to raise awareness of a widespread issue and it’s incredibly humbling to realize that by doing so, others have been able to speak out about their own personal survivor journeys. Thank you to all those who sent messages of support and those who bravely shared their personal survivor stories. We are all empowered by your strength and resilience.

Unfortunately (but not surprisingly),  not everyone was happy with my honesty and directness, my ‘fiapoto’, le mafaufau and ‘le fa’aaloalo’.  Including a few members of my own family. My father called from Samoa to offer his support, along with my older brother, but others are angry about why didn’t you tell us before and how does this make us look?  One condemned my disclosure as “disgusting” and “bringing shame on our family.” I can only assume they are angry, hurt and confused – and rather than directing that anger at my long-ago abusers, or even simply at the horrible fact that this happened to their daughter, their sister – they have chosen to direct it at me. The last few weeks haven’t been easy but I can look at that article and say from a place of inner peace – Im not sorry I wrote it. I stand by those words. I can say:

My hurt, my healing, my voice – is more important than my family’s reputation.

For those of you who are Samoan (or any kind of Pacific Islander!) you will know how difficult that sentence can be to say. How almost impossible it can be to believe. For us; family…family unity… name…reputation… appearances…privacy… are EVERYTHING. It’s almost sacrilegious to prioritize the individual, the ‘needs of the one’, over ‘the needs of the many.’ It can be seen as the epitome of selfishness. Which, I believe, is another huge contributing factor to why rape and sexual abuse is so prevalent in our Pacific Islander communities as is the silence about it. Because when it does happen – too often, the victim is shamed and silenced so that the family will not “suffer.”

(Fijian/NZ writer Tulia Thompson wrote an excellent article reflecting on ‘Pacific Communities and Rape Culture’ and I urge you to read it for discussion on reasons why people “don’t tell”.)  Please don’t misunderstand me – I’m not saying that rape/abuse are only a Samoan/Tongan/ Fijian/Pasifika/etc problem. It’s an everybody, everywhere problem that crosses all ethnic, cultural and socio-economic lines.

I agree with Tulia that one reason why some men rape and abuse women and children – is because they think no-one will ever find out, their victims will never tell and so they will never be held accountable for their actions. Too often, this is exactly what happens. We don’t tell anyone because we are afraid. We are ashamed. We are silenced. And, sometimes, even when we tell – we are ignored, berated, belittled and made to feel like it was our fault. The more that we DO speak out about our experiences and find validation and support from family, friends and community, then hopefully, we can work together to stop abuse from happening.

Every survivor’s story is unique and every survivor’s struggle to heal, to ‘keep it together’ and keep moving forward – is different. I’m grateful for my husband and children who have been a source of strength for me on my own journey. Motherhood has given me great insight. For example, I could not forgive myself for “allowing myself” to be assaulted at age seven – until I had a seven year old daughter and truly comprehended her innocence. If anyone hurt her, I would never blame her or hate her for not fighting back. So how could I possibly keep hating my 7yr old self for that?

In Darren and my Fab5, I have found empathy, compassion, and support. It’s my hope that we all can give the survivors we know and love – the same.

Fa’afetai lava, thank you.

There’s many useful resources available online for those who would like to learn more about this issue. I’ve provided a few links below but there are tons more.

*It can be a shock to find out someone you love is a rape/abuse survivor. For insight on what you can say and do to help your loved one – Tips for Friends and Family of Survivors

*Get the facts – Common Myths about Child Sexual Abuse

*Self-Blame and Survivors – No it was not your fault.

* A list of support networks/organizations for survivors in NZ. – Victim Support.

* The overwhelming majority of rapists are not strangers that attack you in a dark alleyway. They are partners, husbands, friends and acquaintances. Get the facts. – Overview of Partner Rape 

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Righteous Rape

The Samoa Observer interviewed the Chairman of the National Council of Churches and asked for his thoughts on the ‘epidemic of rape and sexual abuse’ in Samoa. His response was printed in the Sunday newspaper and can be read here: http://www.samoaobserver.ws/other/women/8044-bite-them-hard-church-chairman-urges-women

While I think there was truth and helpful insight in some of his remarks, any ‘good’ to be found was overwhelmingly ruined by his counsel for women in abusive situations. I am appalled and saddened that a leader in a position of great influence has chosen to express views which are at best, ignorant and derogatory, and at worst – dangerous for women and children in our country.

An Open Letter to the Chairman of the National Council of Churches.

Dear Chairman,

You are absolutely right. As a Samoan woman – a daughter, a mother, and a teacher – I want to thank you for your wise reflections on the epidemic of rape and sexual abuse crimes in our country. It is inspired leadership like yours which stands as a beacon of light for the men (and women) of your nationwide flock. We must all give thanks, for it is counsel like yours, which guides us in our decision-making when it comes to raping and sexual abusing others. I certainly hope the journalist who interviewed you, did not misquote you, because there’s so many treasured nuggets of wisdom in your interview, things  which I only wish I’d known at various key moments in my life.

Like this one! “The reason why the law is broken so often in Samoa, is because for some, enjoyment was found and the girls have consented for this to happen, then they go and say they were raped.” Oh so true. When I was a high school English teacher, and a fourteen year old student came to me crying because her brother-in-law had raped her, again. And she had told her mother and her mother had slapped her face and told her off for wanting it and causing trouble for her older sister’s marriage.  And this student begged me not to tell anyone, or report it to the police or discuss it with her parents because “my family will beat me and I will have nowhere to go.” At the time, I was sad for her and didn’t know what to say or do to help this young girl. How misguided I was. She was obviously trying to destroy her family. I too, should have slapped her face for wanting to be raped. And perhaps suggested to her parents that they needed to have more family prayers. “Instead of family prayers, the young are out attending basketball and soccer games. This is why such crimes are increasing because parents are not taking the time to nurture their children well.”  Or told her family they needed to focus less on “education, sports and human rights…” because those things were leading them away from the light. Oh, and mobile phones and internet access were also playing a part – encouraging this girl to want sex with her brother-in-law. I’m glad you have identified the cause of the sexual abuse epidemic because you’re so right – if more women were just honest about how much they enjoyed sex with their fathers/brothers/uncles/cousins/abusive-partners and how much they LOVED being forced to have it – then the horrifying rape statistics would virtually, magically disappear.

Or this gem from you is a personal favorite of mine! Women need to fight back …bite them hard; leave a mark…failure to do so could be interpreted as the girl not really resisting and agreeing to sex.” .”  How I wish I’d had enlightened counsel like yours when I was a child. I was seven years old when I was sexually violated by a man much older and much bigger than me. I didn’t fight. Bite. Or scratch. Scream. Or leave any marks. No, I was just frozen. Silly little me! I was foolish enough to believe him when he said that he would kill me if I struggled. Or if I ever told anyone.  I did as I was told and so of course, I misled that man into thinking I was in delightful agreement with his wishes. Don’t worry, I’ve learned an important lesson
from that experience. I have three daughters and when they were only two years old, I made sure they were each trained by ninja assassins so they had black belts in karate and then also carried a ten inch blade and a machine gun at all times. At home, to preschool and to church. You know, so they could fight back and leave a mark in case they were ever attacked. So there would never be any
doubt that their little two year old selves WEREN’T really resisting.

There’s so much informed insight contained in your message, that I encourage everyone, everywhere to read it. Several times over. Read it to your sons so they will have a litany of reasons why it’s okay to rape women. Read it to your daughters so they will understand all the reasons why they will probably be raped one day – and if so, why it will be  their fault.

In conclusion, thank you Chairman for telling us that “I’m not making excuses for men – no man has the right to touch a woman physically, no matter what his reasons are.”

(Even if that reason has been sanctified and justified by the Chairman of the National Council of Churches.)

Sincerely and bitingly yours,

Lani Wendt Young