sexual abuse in the Pacific

“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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