Pacific Communities and Rape Culture: 5 Things that Make it Hard to Speak Out about Rape.

The “Bust Rape Culture” marches throughout Aotearoa on Saturday 16 November showed public outrage about the actions of the “Roast Busters”, sexual violence, and the insufficient responses of police and government services. I’ve been avoiding writing about this issue because it is personally challenging for me. I am a survivor of sexual violence. However, in the dialogue about rape cultures that has emerged, there are a few voices I want to tautoko. New Zealand-born Samoan poet, Leilani Tamu has bravely spoken out on her blog Cultural Diplomacy about the experience of being raped as a teenager as part of the #I am Someone campaign: Then Carmel Sepuloni questioned on Facebook why more Pacific people weren’t involved in the Auckland march. She asked:

“…perhaps the messaging wasn’t right for our community….perhaps this just isn’t a priority????? The one sure thing is that rape culture affects the Pacific community like every other community. It is something that we as a community need to have a better understanding of and something that we need to talk more about”

So this is my list of five things that make it hard to speak out about rape. It is easier for men and boys to rape when they can trust that women and girls will not tell. When women and girls are afraid of the social consequences of telling, rape culture is perpetuated. Rape culture follows a broader cultural logic. It is connected to the devaluing of women and girls.

Please take this list as merely a starting point for a more diverse conversation, I am wary of generalising across Pacific communities. This list is not unique to Pacific communities, nor is it exhaustive.

  1. If it is difficult to talk about sex or genitalia, it is too difficult to talk about non-consensual sex.

       Many Pacific communities are faith-based communities. A lot of us have grown up in churches and families where we have been    taught that sex is inherently linked to sin, and that bodies are sinful. And our response to this is not to talk about sex or body parts at all. I hope that this is changing with the younger generation, but when I was growing up, all I had was vague understanding that an unnamed female part of my body was rude or dirty. So there is no way as a kid I would have said “Someone touched my vagina”. Firstly, I didn’t know I had one. Secondly, I would have thought that was a naughty, rude thing to say.

  2. We are afraid to shame our families.

My father brought us up with a strong sense of family loyalty and obligation, and the belief that I would always put my family before myself was so ingrained that it felt like air to me. And as a young woman, I can remember the deep fear I had of doing anything that might be shaming. And simultaneously, we are taught that being ‘a good girl’ means being like the Virgin Mary. So when I was raped as a teenager, I knew there was no way I could tell my Dad. For a start, I was raped by a boy I had been dating and I didn’t know how to start that conversation. I can remember thinking that Dad wouldn’t cope with knowing I wasn’t a virgin. It’s really vital that our young women feel they can speak out without being blamed and shamed, or fearing that their family might be shamed.

3. Girls need to know their lives and well-being are as important – not less important – than the family overall.

This is linked to the previous point. As a teenager I felt that it was more important to protect my parents from knowing I had been raped, than to get support about it. I don’t think that is an particularly unusual feeling. Young women can have a really invisible place within Pacific communities. Pacific kids are often taught to be respectful of elders, and not necessarily that their own body beings are deserving of respect. It’s important that young women know that their own lives and well-being is as important as anybody else’s.

4. Our communities sometimes normalise intimate and family violence.

This is a really difficult one to say, so let me clarify a bit. Firstly, Pacific communities like other minority communities are subjected to a lot of structural and institutional violence from outside. Within the Fijian community, we have to varying degrees taken up the colonial and missionary believe that sparing the rod spoils the child. I have had many bitter sweet conversations with other Pacific people where we joke about the hidings we had as kids. I can honestly tell you that corporal punishment I experienced as routine as a kid made violence feel ordinary to me. When I was raped, I believed on some level I deserved it by “provoking” a disagreement – I was trying to break up with my boyfriend. If we teach kids that might is right, then they will come to expect that physical force or hurt is a legitimate means of exerting will.

5. Our communities are understandably afraid of institutional racism.

Pacific people have a troubled historical relationship with New Zealand. Many of us have family experiences of the Dawn Raids during the 1970’s. We are used to Pacific people being represented as criminals. We are used to the negative statistics. And we are used to the lack of cultural awareness we experience within educational, medical and legal settings. So when we are raped, we are understandably afraid of how we might be treated by doctors and other health professionals, or by the police. I am even wary of how young Pacific men who have perpetrated sexual violence might be treated by police. This does not make it safe for women and girls to speak out.


13 thoughts on “Pacific Communities and Rape Culture: 5 Things that Make it Hard to Speak Out about Rape.

      1. No, we NEED direct. Because part of the problem is that we are too vague…’discreet’…secretive and shame-ridden about just about everything to do with sex and our bodies.

  1. Some of these social & cultural practices are so deeply engrained in us that, as you said, it’s like air. It’s daring and sometimes discomforting to challenge these ideas, practices but if we want to preserve our “family” we need to get uncomfortable and dare to raise the conversation. Thank you for writing this 🙂

  2. Thank you for sharing how you feel about why rape is a tabu issue amongst our Pacific Islander. Yes indeed the shaming our families and keeping it secretive to protect the purity of a woman has always been one of my reasons for not telling. I appreciate your candor. Those are all very good reasons why there is not enough reports about rape in our community

  3. You could not explain and simplify it better as you did. Thank you, I too was a victim of a sexual assault by a well respected uncle in the mid 1980. I held that secret firmly to my chest without telling anybody else especially my families. As you said, family is everything, the only people that stand between me shouting loud were my parents, I love my father. I feared of what he would do, not to me but to the perpetrator. I was a teenage college girl at the time, vulnerable time of growing up, beautiful stage of life only to experience something ugly and humiliated. I know no difference back then until now! I have move forward by sharing my story with my husband, and another trusted cousin. Two years ago, as part of my studies I chose sexual violence to write about. It was the first time that I felt powerful, inspiring and motivated to present my findings, my narrative, and told my story in front of my peers. I felt free! Last month I joined the march against sexual violence here in West Auckland to support all of us who came from our island paradise with secrets that we thought we would never reveal, talk or shared. Our Samoan culture is so unique, I’m always proud and will continue to be, except that violence of any sort is not our culture. Fa’asamoa culture is base on love.

    1. Fa’afetai for sharing your story. It’s so great that after writing about sexual violence as part of your studies and sharing it with your peers, you felt powerful and free from it. I really like your statement “violence of any sort is not our culture”. It’s such an important and powerful message for our communities.

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