Courage needed to stop sexual abuse epidemic

Lets talk about sex. And do so openly without the shame, secrecy and silence around our bodies in Samoa and effectively we can take back our power of autonomy and end the epidemic of sexual abuse.

This was the message author, Lani Wendt-Young, conveyed to the members of the Commission of the National Public Inquiry into family violence yesterday.

The Commission is being chaired by the Ombudsman, Maiava Iulai Toma. Its members include Falenaoti Ailuai Oloialii, Tagaloatele Professor Peggy Fairbairn-Dunlop, Leasiolagi Professor Malama Meleisea and Tolofuaivalelei Falemoe Lei’ataua.

Yesterday was only the second day into the three-week inquiry and it started off as swift and bold as its first speaker, Ms. Wendt-Young, who spoke openly with courage about the sexual abuse she endured starting at the age of seven.

Ms. Wendt-Young revealed that she had only come out publicly to her family about the abuse when she was 40 years old in the hope that it would empower others to come forward earlier and at the same time break down the stigma attached to sexual abuse victims. 

Her presentation was stirring and members of the Commission were grateful for her contributions and took in her recommendations about how to end the epidemic of sexual abuse.

While there are many points that came out of the discussion around violence against women and girls, two things were identified as issues that continue to intensify the cycle of sexual abuse and impair any kind of efforts to end it which broadly speaking had to do with language and censorship. 

There are no words for sexual organs in the Samoan language.  

According to Mrs. Wendt-Young, courage and openness are what we need to breakthrough through the discomfort of talking about sex, sexuality and our bodies to better understand about respecting boundaries and taking the “dirtiness” and “sinfulness” surrounding our intimate body parts. 

 “I grew up in an English speaking home but we never used the words about our intimate body parts, I am worried and curious though about what words we have in our Samoan language for our intimate body parts,” she said.

“We have made rude and offensive words for the intimate parts of our body but they are not words we can use around our children. 

We need positive and empowering terms in Samoan for our vulva, penis, clitoris and vagina.”

It was pointed out that it is wrongly perceived that educated people are the only ones talking openly about sex but Ms. Wendt-Young insists that its not that case and most of the time, educated people are only talking about it if something bad happens.

 “At home while growing up we never talked about sex,” she said. 

“I think most of our families don’t but our parents warned us girls about risky behaviour that would put us in danger of boys and men. 

“At church I was taught the importance of being pure, chaste and virtuous. I sat in Sunday school and listened to the teacher talk about saving yourself for marriage and I wanted to die because I knew that I was already damaged goods.”

Taking away the stigma and shame attached to a person’s sexuality was also key and that educating people as early as possible was the key to giving children autonomy over their own bodies so that they can identify the differences between positive/consensual sexual experiences and sexual abuse. 

Ending the sexualising of girls bodies and teaching our boys about accountability are key to educating our children for their protection.

 “I say these things so that I can emphasise that as a young woman growing up in Samoa the message I got on every front at home, school, and church was that my body was inherently sinful, that sex and sexual feelings were dirty and that men had overwhelming sexual urges that they constantly struggle to control and if they abused or raped you it was because you had done something to tempt them and push them over the edge."

“Some of the attitudes that we talked about when we are raising sons and teaching them that there is something different about their sex drives or about the way that they look at the world or look at the opposite sex that boys and men have these uncontrollable urges and so its our job as women not to provoke them and protect them and so the burden of the responsibility comes onto the women.”

Family support and understanding is key to the rehabilitation of sexual abuse victims and in Samoa, cultural norms sometimes make it not only harder for victims to come out and get the help they need, it also makes it easier for sexual offenders to continue their abuse. 

According to Ms. Wendt-Young, it is known through the criminal Samoa Returnees Charitable Trust that there are convicted paedophiles who have been deported back and because the sex offenders legislature has not gone through - these sex offenders are not being monitored and the community is unaware of who they are, which places children in harms way. 

 “A child in our country needs to know that their wellbeing, safety and happiness is more important than family pride or prestige,” Ms. Wendt-Young said. 

“And all abusers and potential abusers need to know that the family, the church and the community will not excuse or rationalise their behaviour. Until then we have no hope in stemming this epidemic that scars so many of our children.”

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