Breaking silence the first step to ending sexual crimes
Much of the world is confronting an awful and previously hidden truth: the prevalence of sexual crime against girls and women.
Samoa, too, stands on the precipice of its own reckoning. Whether we flinch or face these realities will carry very real consequences for vulnerable young women across this nation.
Horrific cases of incestuous sexual assault are appearing on all-too regular basis before our courts.
This week’s Samoa Observer provides two distresssngly typical abhorrent examples.
Wednesday’s edition carried a story about a father who repeatedly raped his 14-year-old daughter, including in the view of her younger sister.
The front page of Friday’s edition, meanwhile, covered an even more despicable case (“Incestuous father strikles again, preys on youngest daughter”.) A father, already on parole for raping his eldest daughter, was jailed again, after forcing himself upon his youngest.
Reading about these cases is doubtlessly distressing.
But the Samoa Observer views reporting on matters before our court as fundamental to our journalistic responsibility to faithfully record the events taking place before every branch of our Government. In a much broader sense, it is also a newspaper’s duty to hold a mirror up to society. Whether we choose to look at the reflection is another question.
For his part, the Prime Minister, Tuilaepa Dr. Sailele Malielegaoi, has criticised this newspaper’s coverage.
“Some people, they come and say to me, Sole, looking at the reports, it appears the only thing Samoan elderly men are doing is violating their daughters,” Tuilaepa said late last month.
“That's because of the reports from here saying that the country is at war. See the kind of thinking being created by these people (media).”
To the Prime Minister we offer this rejoinder: deciding on which matters appear before the courts is not our responsibility. But covering them selectively in the name of promoting one perception or another of society would be a complete breach of our duty as journalists.
We also respectfully submit that the Prime Minister’s remarks miss a larger point.
The increased coverage of cases of incestuous abuse may well be creating negativen perceptions about Samoan men.
But our focus should be on these cases' causes, not those who chronicle them.
In one aspect the Prime Minister’s reflexive disbelief is understandable: It’s highly unlikely that the increasing number of cases of familial sexual crimes before our courts reflects a sudden increase in offending.
These cases are not the symptoms of a crime wave, but of women speaking out in spite of stigma.
A similar phenomenon is happening worldwide.
In Australia almost every category of crime has decreased for every one of the past two decades, with one exception. In America, this week’s trial of film mogul Harvey Weinstein is the culmination of the 2017 “me too” movement; a watershed which led women across the country to speak publicly about the abuse they suffered at the hands of powerful men.
In Samoa, Leilua Lino, who testified against her father for sexual assault and was recognised internationally for her courage, has been the local face of a global trend.
Elsewhere rising cases have sparked national conversations about the extent of sexual misconduct and the way its victims are treated.
Samoa must have the same conversation, however unpleasant it may be.
In her sentencing remarks for the perpetrator of one of the crimes reported on this week, Justice Mata Keli Tuatagaloa called for action from families and leaders of the churches and the community to speak out about sexual abuse in the home.
These crimes, the Judge notes, offend not only universal standards of human decency but also the pillars of Samoan society: Christian and family values.
As Justice Tuatagaloa said, the consequences of brushing such incidents under the carpet are devastating for future victims.
“Because in the long run, if these victims are able to tell their story, it could help another individual facing the same predicament,” she said.
In other words, a national conversation is the first step towards protecting women from such heinous crimes.
Failing our moral obligation in this sense is much more shameful than any conversation could ever be