MicSem Publications

Child Abuse and Neglect in Micronesia

by Mariano N. Marcus

April 1991 (MC #02) Social Issues

This report is the result of a ten-month study of child abuse and neglect in four entities of Micronesia: Chuuk, Pohnpei, Yap and Palau. The study, supported by a grant from the Trust Territory Justice Improvement Commission, was coordinated by the Micronesian Seminar in 1986. The actual survey work was carried out by a different agency in each island group: Pohnpei Headstart, Yap Community Action Program, Oceanic Social Research based on Saipan for Palau, and the Micronesian Seminar for Chuuk.

In each of the entities data on child abuse and neglect was collected through interviews, although the content of the interview forms differed from place to place. Yap for instance, had a four-page questionnaire while Chuuk had only a single-page one. Chuuk and Yap had very little structure to the interviews compared with Pohnpei and Palau. Field workers for Yap and Chuuk simply went out to the communities and asked around for information on child abuse and neglect. Interviews were done with people willing to share information on abuse and neglect cases they knew of, whether they had seen these first hand or heard of them from others. Palau collected information through the schools, the hospital and the Public Safety Department. Pohnpei collected information through the headstart centers and the parents of the children joining the centers.

Definition of Child Abuse and Neglect

The term "child abuse and neglect" may be new to the ears of Micronesians, although no one can deny that abuse and neglect in some form have existed in Micronesia over the years. Recently the governments of each island group have come to realize that child abuse and neglect occurs during the early formative years, the foundational time in the growth of every human being. The precise definition of child abuse and neglect may vary from island to island, depending on custom and beliefs. In this report, however, we will presume a broad understanding of what child abuse and neglect means for the part of the Pacific. Our understanding is not necessarily based on its definition in the United States or other countries like Sweden where spanking a child is a misdemeanor. We have tried to define "abuse and neglect" according to the norms of the community. The broad term "abuse and neglect" is divided into three main categories: physical abuse, sexual abuse and neglect.

Neglect is taken to mean the gross and habitual neglect of children by parents and responsible authorities, not just the absence of physical amenities due to poverty in the family. Neglect can mean depriving children of emotional support and attention, as well as depriving them of the material necessities of life.

Physical abuse is understood as the harsh beating of children beyond the norms used by the community for disciplining children. These might be exhibited by bruises, lacerations, burns or broken bones. Sometimes the mere frequency of the beatings or their unreasonableness suggests physical abuse.

Sexual abuse is used throughout the reports as the molestation of young children by older adults, whether relatives or not. It includes sexual intercourse, but is not limited to it. It might also include fondling of the genitals, oral and anal sex, and forcible rape.


This report is a descriptive report and is not geared toward any statistical analysis. However, it is worth noting the number of cases and type of abuse taking place in each of the islands in Micronesia. Of the 1027 cases of abuse and neglect, 704 cases or approximately 69% of them are neglect. There are 194 cases of physical abuse (20%) and 115 cases of sexual abuse (11%).

The relative percentage of male and female among those abused is about the same. We should note that the total number of cases collected does not necessarily mean the total number of victims. One person may be counted for more than one abuse or neglect case.

The reported cases are broken down below:

  Chuuk Pohnpei Yap Palau Total
Neglect 153 322 102 127 704
Physical Abuse 25 44 82 43 194
Sexual Abuse 41 11 32 31 115


It is very common in Micronesia to see children being taken care of by slightly older brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles and grandparents. In cases where both parents are working, the children are likely to remain home with an older sister, cousin, or grandmother to watch over them. To a non-Micronesian, the idea of leaving the children behind may seem to be neglect. Furthermore, mealtimes are not regularly scheduled three times a day. Housing may be below the standard of Western housing and is almost always overcrowded when compared with American homes. These are problems in the sight of a foreigner, but none of these in itself constitutes childneglect.

By neglect we mean the failure of parents or guardians to provide what they could be expected to provide in terms of food, clothing, medical care, and general support. In Pohnpei, for instance, a 12-year old boy and an 11-year old girl stopped going to school because they did not have any clothes to wear to school even though both parents had jobs and earned some money for their living. This was a clear case of child neglect in the eyes of the local community. But there are other cases that are debatable, as when children are deprived of food, clothing and care as a punishment for misbehavior or for annoying their parents. Not until the child decides to reform is any attention given to him and these needs satisfied.

Child neglect in Micronesia takes many forms. One form is the unwillingness of parents or guardians to provide food and clothing for their children, even when they have enough money to buy clothes and are capable of finding food. A 25-year old divorced woman from Chuuk with five children decided to leave all her children to her mother so she could go to school off-island and find a job to support her children. The mother took over the guardianship of the children, but could not afford to feed them properly because she and her husband did not have money to buy food and were not capable of fishing and farming. So the children were turned over to relatives incapable of providing proper support for them. Another Chuukese mother left her infant to her grandparents, who did not have any money to buy milk for the baby. Hence, the baby was given coconut milk everyday and soon became very sick.

Another form of neglect, often reported in Pohnpei, is cutting off all communication ties and parental control over children due to the "busy parent" syndrome. In what has become a fairly common pattern throughout Micronesia, the son of one working family has been involved in drinking with other kids in town. The parents are too busy with their newly opened store and government job to give proper guidance to the boy and little is said to the boy in terms of discipline. Another very common form of neglect is the act of leaving children with a mother or grandmother who is either too busy or is otherwise unable to provide adequate care for the children.

Food has a significant symbolic value in the life of Micronesians. Food of any kind signifies love, care, affection and attention. The quality of food given to a person symbolizes the degree of respect, care and hospitality. Frequently throughout Micronesia, therefore, it was when a child was not given enough food, or enough "good food", that the neglect was most deeply felt. In Chuuk, for example, a child came home after playing with friends and asked his mother to give him some food. The mother, who was busy talking to a visiting neighbor, scolded him and told him that there was rice in the pot. The child asked for meat, but the mother merely told him to put soy sauce on his rice and eat.

The data collected in the course of the studies done in the different island groups indicates that there are largely two kinds of family situations that give rise to child neglect. The first is when a marriage ends either through death or divorce. Frequently the children are left with their grandmother or another older relative while the real mother or father is busy trying to find a new partner. The temporary "parents" of the children often lack the time, resources or interest to properly care for these new additions to their family. But the neglect often continues, and sometimes even worsens, when the parent has found a new spouse. In Pohnpei and Chuuk a woman who remarries usually brings her children with her to the home of her new husband. The family situation that results from this is fraught with tensions. The woman's new husband, now the step-father of her children by her previous marriage, often shows preferential treatment for his own children over his step-children. In one such case, the step-father bought his own children clothes and furnished them with special treats such as Spam and chicken, but failed to provide these same things for his step-children. In another family a young girl who went with her mother to live on another island after her mother remarried was given almost total responsibility for the housework while her half-sisters were allowed to come and go as they pleased. Sometimes there is evidence of the new father subjecting his stepsons to harsh beatings, and even making sexual advances towards his step-daughters as they mature. Neglect and child abuse are rampant in situations like this.

This seems to be true in Yap as well, despite the fact that Yap is a patrilineal society rather than matrilineal like Chuuk, Pohnpei and Palau. In Yap children customarily live with the father on his land and inherit from their family title to land. In cases of divorce children remain with their father; and in the event of the father's death, children live with their father's sisters and brothers. As in other parts of Micronesia, a single brother was expected to marry his deceased brother's wife to provide for the care of his children within the traditional family system. Yet changes have broken down, to some extent at least, the customary means of providing for children upon divorce and death, as the following example shows. A ten-year old Yapese boy whose father died and whose mother remarried was relegated to his paternal grandfather for adoption. When his grandfather neglected to care for the boy, as he would have been expected to do, the boy moved in with his mother and step-father. The step-father did not like the boy from the start and beat the child severely, as a result of which the child ran away from home and became a wanderer.

The study done in Palau likewise revealed signs of serious discrimination among children. In the case of Palau, however, the discrimination–and the neglect that stemmed from it–was shown towards adopted children rather than natural children. One non-Palauan who was adopted into a Palauan family was so poorly treated in comparison with the others in the family that he eventually ran away and became a "drifter." Two other children adopted by a widow were taken in by the widow's mother when their adoptive mother suddenly became sick and died. Their new adoptive mother never liked them, however, because she felt they were an additional burden for her and her other children. There is another case of a boy and a girl adopted into a family with children of their own who were often beaten harshly by their adoptive father.

A second situation commonly leading to neglect is that of young unmarried women who have had children, sometimes several times over. Unwed mothers who are very young would naturally have difficulty in raising children by themselves, but they can under ordinary circumstances go to their families to seek care for their illegitimate children. Increasingly, however, the families are showing reluctance to provide the kind of support for children that they would have provided in the past. Chuuk and Pohnpei report that in some cases the girl's parents will refuse to adopt her children, especially if she has several children out of wedlock, to discourage her from further promiscuous behavior. This means that the young mother is herself forced to bear the burden of providing support for children that her age and status make her unequal to handling.

Even if the parents of the unwed mother agree to adopt the child, there are further difficulties that often lead to what might be called neglect. Sometimes grandparents are unable to handle the burden of caring for these children, especially if they have children of their own or are old and weak. Some of the most serious cases of malnutrition discovered by hospital authorities in the Marshalls, Chuuk and Pohnpei are those in which the grandparents have assumed custody of a child. There was a well documented case in Majuro in which the older grandparents of a child fed the child with corn twists and other forms of junk food until the weight loss of the child resulted in hospitalization for severe malnutrition. In some cases the grandparents are unable to provide sufficient discipline for the growing child with the result that the child is spoiled and can become used to having his own way in everything. In Palau, as we have mentioned, the problem seems to take a slightly different form. Children who are adopted, even those adopted by their own grandparents, are frequently the victims of discrimination by their adoptive parents, who today more than ever tend to regard the children as an economic burden and show their resentment through their failure to provide basic needs for these children.

What is said here about the difficulties in adoption by grandparents applies equally to adoption by other relatives. A young unmarried woman may choose to entrust her child to an older married sister, but the outcome is often not much better. One Chuukese young woman who did this found that her son had so much trouble getting along with his aunt and uncle, his adoptive parents, that he often ran away to stay with others for a time. Although he usually returned to their house, his life has become a series of comings and goings from the family that has taken responsibility for him.

All in all, the case notes from all islands seem to indicate that adoption, although a long-standing cultural practice throughout island Micronesia, has become problematic today. Consequently, the breakup of nuclear family groups through divorce or death, as well as the care for the offspring of casual or temporary unions, have also become problems in our day. The often repeated remark in the popular literature on the Pacific that situations like these could be handled easily is simply no longer true. The disruption of the traditional family structures in past years has seriously affected the care of our children today, for this care is increasingly becoming the responsibility of the nuclear family rather than the lineage. As the lineage breaks down, it becomes ever more difficult to provide for children who do not have two natural parents the necessary parental supervision, love and concern, and material resources for their proper upbringing. The back-up that once existed in the form of the lineage to compensate for the deficiencies of the parents no longer functions as it did before.

A Chuukese saying "Meta om ai; meta ai om", meaning "what is mine is yours and what is yours is mine", defines the traditional lineage ideals of unity, sharing and mutual help. The new nuclear family system cannot do this nearly as well. The Chuukese practice today has changed to "What is mine is mine and what is yours is yours!" The grandfather who refused to take care of his grandson is only one illustration of this. What may be responsible for his refusal is the sudden change in the traditional lineage functions. What once used to be the responsibility of the whole lineage in the care of children is becoming the responsibility of the nuclear family.

Meanwhile, the subsistence economy has gradually sunk while the money economy has emerged. Today's families struggle eagerly for money, often times leading to the "busy parents" syndrome and consequent neglect of children. In Pohnpei, for instance, one daughter of a working family has been roaming around town on her own smoking and drinking. This is a result of neglect by her "working parents". She ends up doing anything she desires because there has not been any constant advice or discipline by the parents. One Chuukese family moved to a different place to seek employment, leaving their disabled daughter in the care of a grandmother who was too old to look after her. The crippled daughter became pregnant by the neighboring kids, but the grandmother could not do much because she was too weak to supervise her.

Physical Abuse

Physical discipline is common in Micronesia. Spanking may be done by bare hands, a belt, a broom stick, a two-by-four, or any other object nearby. For foreigners it may be a shock to see Micronesians beating children as a way of disciplining them. But there is a limit to what Micronesians accept as proper. When the beatings become very frequent and uncontrollable, then even Micronesians consider them physical abuse. Beatings that end in serious damage to the child, as in bleeding and internal injuries, are considered physical abuse.

Most of the reported physical abuse takes the form of beating, sometimes with a piece of lumber or a rubber hose, usually accompanied by strong verbal abuse as well. Sometimes, though, there are unusual twists to the manner of abuse. One father chases his kids out of the house when he is angry at them, and when they get beyond his reach he picks up rocks and begins stoning them. Another man beats his children with his pistol in hand, threatening to shoot them if they try to run away. Another uses a fishing spear and knife to beat his children. There are a few people who reportedly tie the hands of their children behind their backs and suspend them from a tree with their feet off the ground, sometimes beating them while they are hanging in this fashion. One girl was thrown by her aunt into a well after the girl disobeyed her orders to do the washing. Perhaps the oddest case of all was the boy who was nailed in a coffin and buried alive in a shallow grave by his father before neighbors heard him pounding, dug him up and rescued him.

Physical abuse seems to arise from the same situations as those leading to neglect. In Chuuk and Pohnpei, step-parents often are the abusers of their step-children. Pohnpei reported a case where a stepfather severely beat his daughter from his previous wife to convince his present wife that he loved her and her children more than his own daughter. Another man beat his step-son and broke one of his legs because the child refused to buy a pack of cigarettes for him. A stepmother beat her daughter and broke her arm just because she didn't feed the pigs.

Physical abuse is almost always related to handling negative feelings, anger and aggression. The man who threw his infant out the window was angry at the wife because she was not home when he arrived. Instead of beating up his wife, who ran away when she heard him coming, he turned to their six-month old baby in his anger. He was drunk when the incident took place, and the baby was the only person within reach at that time.

Handling feelings is very risky and fragile from a Micronesian point of view. A person must know his own weaknesses and strengths to deal with himself. To be emotional or sentimental, or to have many deep feelings within oneself is considered a feminine characteristic by Micronesians. It is very common for a Micronesian male to deny that he is angry, ashamed or hurt. However, as the saying goes, "the water in the pot finally comes to a boil," And so it is for the male who holds back his feelings for a long time, finally coming to admit that he is in trouble after a six-pack of Budweiser. Often enough the brunt of the "explosion," or displacement, is borne by the children in the family. One Palauan father, for instance, hurled his child against the wall, threw him out the window, beat him with wood and made him do manual labor well beyond his physical capacity when he found that his wife was not at home. Another example of this occurred following a baseball game between two villages. A man on the losing team, clearly angry at his side's loss, walked off the field to his four young children who were crying on the sidelines and slapped them hard again and again for bothering him.

Alcohol is another factor that leads one to physically abuse his children; many of the physical abuse cases, in fact, are alcohol-related. One husband came home drunk and asked his wife to give him some food. When his wife refused because it was already late and she was tired, he did not do anything at first. Then, as their two-year old son began crying because of the mosquitos, the father started shouting at him and beating the child.

Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse, as mentioned earlier, is defined as the molestation of young children by older adults, whether relatives or not. It includes sexual intercourse but is not limited to it. Most of the cases recorded involve incest committed by father, stepfather or uncle. In Chuuk a few of the reported cases involved a sexual relationship between a man and his step-daughter, usually the child of his wife by a former marriage. Such a relationship often begins when the girl has reached her middle or late teens. The problem is by no means a rare one. One 16-year old girl who had succumbed to her stepfather's advances left home for good shortly afterwards because of the guilt she felt at what she had done. In other cases, however, the girl suffers in silence, sometimes enduring sexual advances for a few years, until she finds a boyfriend and can finally leave the house to marry. One man actually married the daughter of his first wife (by another marriage) after he divorced the latter.

In Yap, there were several men who had sexual contact with their step-daughters. A widow with two daughters married a young man. The young man took his step-daughters, who were in their early teens, far inland and forced each into sexual intercourse. Because they feared the step-father, the girls kept everything to themselves. Another step-father took his 13-year old daughter with him on his boat to go fishing off a small island. He had sex with her on the island. In an unusual case on Pohnpei, a woman made sexual advances toward her step-son. The son ended up marrying his step-mother, leaving her former husband (the father of the young man by another marriage) without a wife. An eight-year old Yapese was forced into homosexual acts by an older boy from his village. In Palau two taxi drivers were mentioned as perpetrators of oral sex with young girls.

Referring back to our disrupted traditional culture, the old safeguards and taboos that acted to prevent incest are diminishing gradually. In Chuuk the style of clothes worn by young girls is very attractive. Some girls wear dresses that are nearly transparent, and sometimes so short and tight so that the female figure stands out in full exposure to watchful onlookers. Girls in Pohnpei and Yap frequently wear tight jeans or other clothes that are a radical departure from old dress standards.

The breakdown of respect behavior may be another factor responsible for the rate of incest today. Words that were strictly forbidden in the company of women are heard frequently today by females. In many parts of traditional Micronesia brothers and sisters were strictly forbidden to sleep in one house or under one roof, yet today they commonly live together in a single dwelling. All these factors leading to the breakdown of the old taboos and safeguards may be responsible for the frequency of incest today.


Why is there child abuse and neglect in Chuuk, Pohnpei, Yap, Palau and the rest of Micronesia? Our answer is simply because our Micronesian society today is changing. The breakdown of the family structure is drastic and people do not know how to cope with the changes taking place. Everyone wants change, but we do not know how to deal with the problems that result from the changes.

What, then, do we recommend by way of intervention, legislation, or other action to control the damage? The first practical step to be considered is direct intervention aimed at assisting the victims of child abuse. In Micronesia, this may not be very effective because Micronesians do not like intrusion when it comes to family matters. Material assistance for the victims of child neglect is already being given in Chuuk through the Red Cross, youth groups and other religious groups. Counseling centers could be set up, but they will probably be ineffective because Micronesians do not want to expose or discuss serious family matters with those outside the family.

The second approach toward dealing with the problems of child abuse is community education. Community education may take many forms. In Chuuk and Pohnpei, a series of radio programs aimed at discussing child abuse in its various forms and illustrating the negative developmental effects on the child has been aired. The reactions of the audience in these places have been very positive and encouraging. Another form of education is through workshops, conferences, meetings or other face-to-face sessions. These may have a smaller audience than the radio programs, but through these means a networking structure could be formed to include the schools, Headstart programs and other agencies in the states.

The problem of child abuse and neglect has become a serious problem and it should not be addressed by only a single institution. A networking structure should be formed to involve the schools, Public Health, the radio stations, the Community Action programs, youth groups, church groups and others. All these resources are needed to carry out the task of preventing the problem of child abuse and educating people on what is proper in child rearing.