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Corporal punishment for rape too easy an answer

The Minister of Police, Tialavea Tionisio Hunt, this week called for Samoa to deal with an apparent epidemic of rape and sexual assault by returning to judicial corporal punishment.

We can understand the Minister’s impulse.

Sex crimes, particularly those involving an incestuous element, are among the lowest forms of human behaviour and provoke the most visceral reactions.

The desire to strike back, quite literally with canes, is a reflex which we all share at some level. 

Earlier this year, to take but one example, a father was sentenced to life imprisonment for the indecent assault and rape of his 14-year-old daughter. 

In passing her judgment, Justice Mata Keli Tuatagaloa noted the increasing number of sexual violations against the country's young women does not square with a country which values of Christianity and community. 

"For a country that places a lot of emphasis on family, culture and religion, the increase in the number of sexual violations and abuse against young girls in villages and especially within families' shows a breakdown in our society and on the innate shared understandings pertaining to our cultural values," she said. 

"It is from our culture that we place importance in the status of our children, our women and overall our aiga (family). It is with a heavy heart that such values are very much being threatened."

It is unclear that sexual crime in Samoa is in fact increasing and that the nation's men are suddenly more inclined toward rape.

It is more likely that the same pattern being followed all over the world is repeating itself here in Samoa, too: as the stigma of rape decreases, reports of it occurring increase. But it is our uncomfortable responsibility to speed that process up. 

These episodes provoke in us feelings of despair and shame. 

The Prime Minister. Prime Minister, Tuilaepa Dr. Sailele Malielegaoi, last year responded to these feelings by suggesting that the media simply not report on these happenings, which cast Samoa in a bad light. 

Sweeping this issue under the carpet is obviously not the answer. But nor is caning perpetrators in the public square to shame and hurt them for their behaviour the right response.

Sexual assault, including incestuous sexual assault, has been going in Samoan villages for a long time.

Its causes are deeply complicated and any simple solution, while attractive, is unlikely to solve the issue.

For one thing, the reintroduction of judicial corporal punishment would isolate Samoa from the community of civilised nations who have signed up to the United Nations Convention against Torture.

Only about 25 countries have instituted judicial corporal punishment. They include countries with questionable human rights records such as Pakistan, Iran and Brunei.

While satisfying, it is also unclear what would be achieved by these punishments.

American states which have the death penalty - perhaps the ultimate deterrent against crime - have murder rates which are roughly one quarter above those that do not.

A move by India to impose corporal punishment by rapists has not shown any sign of a deterrent effect.

Rape already carries the most serious judicial punishment in Samoa - life in prison. And yet we are continuing to see cases rise.

This is partly because these are crimes that are committed by people with a deviant sexuality and who are acting on compulsion; in other words, they are not rational people likely to weigh the consequences of their actions. 

One-in-five Samoan women, according to research by the Ombudsman, report having been raped and one-in-ten by a member of their own family. 

That figure is likely to be underreported. 

The solution to these despicable crimes is not going to be found in any one measure.

The availability of alcohol and its tendency towards disinhibited behaviour is almost certainly a contributing factor to the incidence of rape.

But that, too, is not new.

The reports we see now reflect the work of advocates such as the Samoa Victim Support Group, Brown Girl Woke and victims such as Leilua Lino who have spoken out about their experiences to fight stigma.

We should see this increase in reported cases as the first step towards truly fighting sexual assault. 

A change in attitudes, not punishments will be our strongest weapon against the scourge of rape. 

Villages must take stronger stances against rape with by-laws and the banishment of perpetrators; they must also make it clear that no victim will face public shame for speaking out.

The churches of Samoa, too, must take a lead in reinforcing a view of Christianity that encourages, above all, sympathy for the vulnerable. 

Recent comments by clergyman Father Muliau Stowers saying that women who dress a certain way may provoke a “natural response” in men are an example of an unhelpful and patriarchal view of Christianity.

Until we address the reticence of victims, any increase in punishment is unlikely to be effective.

Rather than looking for easy answers, we should seek the hard road of encouraging people to come forward.

Knowing that they are likely to be caught and shamed for their crimes is far more likely to be a deterrent to a perpetrator than a caning. 

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