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By Giff Johnson

MAJURO, Marshall Islands (Marianas Variety, Feb. 4) - All five rapes or attempted rapes prosecuted in 2003 in Majuro were of girls between the ages of five and 14 years.

While "only" five cases went to court last year, this represents a 400 percent increase over 2002, when just one rape was prosecuted in the Marshall Islands. In this small culture-conscious island nation of 55,000, where it’s considered bad form to talk about sex-related matters openly, the fact that people are reporting child rapes to the police at all is cause for comment.

Majuro Hospital administrator Sandy Alfred thinks that reporting mechanisms are now stronger than in the past, which means that there is a system for transmitting information to the police, and officials and the community as a whole are more aware of sexual assaults as a problem.

"The hospital has made a policy that any suspicious cases that come in the emergency room are reported to the police," Alfred said Monday. "This has been in place for one year now.

"I believe that it has had a dramatic impact on getting the information to the police and getting the process of investigation and prosecution started."

Although the cultural climate may still not encourage reporting sexual assaults involving relatives, the government structure is getting more aggressive.

Police criminal investigation division chief Vincent Tani believes that people are reporting these incidents more lately because they are aware that this is bad behavior. But in the past, customary practices prevented people from coming forward to the police, he said.

Police Commissioner George Lanwi said Monday that he’s hopeful more people in the community will report incidents of violence. "We can’t stop it," he said. "But if it’s reported, we can at least control it."

But local residents say that child rape and incest are not new to the Marshall Islands; it’s just being reported more. In the past, people were reluctant to report such incidents because they frequently involve family members.

The prosecutions in 2003 indicated, however, that more people are bringing these assaults to the police for action.

Majuro resident Janet Ned, a 63-year-old grandmother, said she believes that rapes have happened in the past but they’ve always been within the family. "Such issues are not good to talk about because of our custom," she said.

She thinks the reason rapes of little children are being reported is because it’s no longer within the family. "These boys going into the houses and taking the little girls to the ocean side to rape them is new," she said. "It’s happening because they are drunk."

Ned says that she believes that there continue to be rapes and incest within families. "We know it’s wrong but it’s against our culture to talk about things like this," she said. "In some cases the mothers are afraid to turn in their own sons or husbands because once they come out of jail they will hurt them for telling."

Another Majuro resident, Agnes Jibke, 24, who has conducted research into violence against women for the national women’s organization Women United Together Marshall Islands, said in an interview "there seems to be a general knowledge and acceptance in the community that cases like this occur but nothing has been done about them.

"Incest and rape have been here, they’re part of our culture but people don’t talk about it because of shame."

She said that by custom, "incest is culturally accepted — look at the word ‘ri-likin.’ We say it’s okay to sleep with your brother or cousins that are ‘ri-likin’ (related to them through the father’s or uncle’s side). In the western sense this is called incest."

Alfred said "social and customary norms have hidden such behavior and protected the perpetrators of these crimes in the past. Such social norms need to be done away with.

"We need laws now that protect the child or victim even if the family doesn’t want to press charges."

Alfred pointed out that each government agency is supposed to implement the laws, but many of the laws that supposedly govern sex crimes are weak. For example, he said, there is no statutory rape law that sets an age on sexual relations.

"The national police are trying but they need more help, more training," he said. "For a long time everyone has known that the Attorney General’s Office has been under staffed. They too need more help to make the system work."

February 4, 2004

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