by Francis X. Hezel S.J.
November 30, 1994 Cultural Government Social Issues
Two cases of wife beating resulting in death have highlighted the problem recently in the FSM. It is a much talked about problem, something taken up by women's groups in the FSM in the wake of worldwide concern, but no one seems to have any idea of the frequency of the problem. Tina Takashy, the head of the Domestic Violence Program, has ten cases reported each month on Pohnpei and estimates that another 20 go unreported. Even this, she admits, is no real index of the frequency or seriousness of the problem. Police officials in Pohnpei said that they have no figures on complaints.
Despite the attention given to domestic violence at those times when a woman is maimed or killed, women leaders argue that it is not generally acknowledged as a community problem. "We live with domestic violence every day in the FSM," one of the women remarked, "but people's general response is silent acceptance." In the eyes of another woman, it is "a hidden problem, a shameful secret."
Domestic violence is understood to mean violence against women and children by someone in their family. The violence may take the form of beatings, rape or even murder. There are rare instances in which a woman is the perpetrator of the violence, but the offender is normally an older male in the family, usually the father or husband.
Our discussion, for the most part, centered on husbands' physical abuse of their wives. One woman who counsels women regularly estimates that about 40 or 50 percent of all married Micronesian women are slapped around at least occasionally by their husbands. Whether slapping one's wife should be looked upon as domestic violence is a question on which there was no real agreement. One man pointed out that moderate wife-beating has always been tolerated in Micronesian societies as a "means of discipline." He and others suggested that perhaps what was traditionally permitted to Micronesian men has become unacceptable in our day. Yet many other participants felt that there has been a real escalation in violence in recent decades.
Where do we draw the line between "discipline" and violence? No one was prepared to say. FSM and Pohnpei law is no help, someone noted, because there is no legal definition of domestic violence nor is there any legislation aimed at this specifically. Even if we were not able to spell out exactly the difference between traditional physical discipline and violence, we sensed that the distinction was real. Someone quoted a prominent Micronesian local historian as saying that there is no evidence to support the conclusion that domestic violence was ever a part of the traditional culture. Most of the participants agreed that the beating of women and children is probably much worse today than it was fifty or a hundred years ago. "Somewhere something has changed," one participant noted.
Several times in the course of the discussion, participants alluded to the protection that women received in earlier years. Women were by no means mere chattel in traditional Micronesia. The old society accorded them valuable roles-as guardians of the land and peacemakers, for example-and cared for them well. Women were not expected to defend themselves. Even after marriage they were afforded protection by their blood relatives, especially their bothers. In the first place, married women lived in relatively large household among an extended family group. With her family or her in-laws living so close, there was rarely the opportunity for her husband to mistreat her. But if the husband abused her in any way, the woman's relatives would be expected to step in and whisk her off to their own homestead where the abusive husband could not get to her. At times the whole community might get involved on behalf of the maltreated woman. If the husband wanted his wife back, he might have to surrender a piece of land as a penalty. At very least, he would have to agree not to mistreat her again.
For the woman's family to remove her from her husband was an embarrassment to the husband and his family. The husband almost never went alone to reclaim his wife. He would be obliged to ask his own family to go to his wife's family and apologize to them on his behalf. A man's family might be persuaded to endure this humiliation once or twice, but they were certainly not prepared to do it again and again. Rather than risk having the woman whisked off again, they acted as a force to restrain the man from treating his wife so badly that she would be tempted to flee to her own family.
In a word, marriage was an affiliation of two families, not just of two individuals. Both families had a considerable stake in the marriage, and for this reason they were expected to approve it ahead of time. Both families kept a rather close watch on the marriage and acted to curb any tendencies a man might have to mistreat his wife. The extended family system may have allowed some wife beating, but it "monitored, mediated and moderated it," in the words of one participant.
This system has broken down today to a large extent. There are many reasons why this is so. With increased mobility today, brothers move off island and are not on hand to protect their married sisters. Moreover, there is a great increase in marriages that cut across cultural lines so that the old rules can not be applied as easily anymore. But there is probably even a more fundamental reason why the old means of protection is not longer effective. As more and more young people choose their own spouse these days, the family investment in the marriage is not as great as it once was. Marriage is being regarded ever more commonly as a matter between the couple themselves, and relatives are reluctant to interfere as they once would have done routinely. The household with its nuclear family is rapidly shaking free from the extended family group and it's assuming dominion over its own hearth. With the couple declaring their independence of their kin by choosing their own marriage partner and running their own household, they are also much more vulnerable when trouble strikes. Women are denied the protection they once enjoyed.
Some of the participants argued vehemently that the extended family system must be strengthened today if women are to be protected. But, with the changes that have befallen the family, is it realistic to expect that this can be done? "Pacific societies are very adaptable," some responded. This might seem idealistic, they admitted, but what alternatives do we have? If Hawaiian families can reinstate the traditional form of family problem-solving to provide for their needs today, why can't Micronesians restore some of the old family forms? Perhaps through a public education program, for instance, we could reestablish the practice of having the young man and his parents meet the whole family of his bride-to-be, including her older sister, to reaffirm the role that they will play with respect to his wife after the marriage.
Others argued that the old means of protection simply won't work any longer and we are obliged to look for new ways to prevent spouse abuse. Legislation is one avenue that should be explored. Currently there are no laws against domestic violence in the FSM. Perhaps legislation should be considered to control what seems to be a growing problem. This can be done in a culturally sensitive manner since the FSM Constitution allows for legislation to protect cultural values. Thus, it might even be possible to legislate the fuller involvement of the extended family in overseeing what goes on in a marriage.
It is one thing to make the laws and quite another to enforce them, however. Law enforcement officials present at the discussion were quick to point out that laws themselves don't stop violence. One of the Pohnpei police officers told us that ninety percent of all complaints entered against husbands for assault are withdrawn before action can be taken. No arrest can be made unless the woman agrees to press charges, and the woman seldom does. Domestic violence cannot be handled by the police alone, even if there were good laws in the books. "This is a social problem, not primarily a law enforcement problem," one of the police officers said.
If the government cannot offer the protection women need and if the old extended family is beyond restoration, perhaps we need "surrogate families," one man wryly suggested. His remark was more profound than most of us might have thought at first. He was suggesting that instead of turning to the state for a solution to another social problem, we might explore that vast social area between the individual and the government-community organizations or what are sometimes called secondary associations. There is terrain here that could have been productively explored if we had more time.
Some participants, who had little faith in the systemic or structural changes proposed above, preferred addressing the perpetrator of the violence. If we can't change society in such a way as to secure adequate protection for women, then we can at least try to persuade men to stop committing spouse abuse. Where does their anger spring from? Many different opinions were voiced. One woman believed that men were violent when they lacked the verbal skills to argue. Others attributed the violence to men's feeling unneeded or the dislocation they experienced as a result of changes in their roles. Someone suggested that the anger some men feel might be the effect of a lack of self-esteem. In too many instances, however, men's violence toward women stems from anger toward another-perhaps one's boss or older brother or neighbor. The man can not vent this anger at the one he is really angry at, and the wife happens to be the most convenient whipping post around.
Whatever the origin of this anger, a public education program might help men recognize it for what it is so that they can deal with it more harmlessly. This kind of program has a model in the "Alternatives to Violence" program that is proving successful in Hawaii.
What can be done to make the family safer and prevent the outbreak of domestic violence that we have been seeing all too frequently these days? There seem to be two basic approaches. One is to provide protection for women just as traditional Micronesian societies did. If the old forms of protection, embedded in the extended family structure, are ineffective today and can not be restored, then new forms must be established. A second approach is to choke off the problem at its source by trying to train men to behave non-violently toward their wives. One might wonder, however, whether such an ambitious program can ever fully succeed. In the meantime, the victims of violence will still require better protection that they have today.