An end to impunity

Lemalu Sina Retzlaff a couple of days after she was attacked

[Originally published on Pacific Politics and in the Vanuatu Daily Post.]

I have to apologise. If what I write today is rambling or incoherent, it’s because I just spent a mostly sleepless night standing watch over a woman and her children. While the rest of the nation got off its collective face celebrating the new year, they were being terrorised by a man prowling around their house, peering in through the windows, cutting at the screens, knocking at the door, testing the lock.

I got the call late last night and, after ascertaining that the problem was not simply a momentary disturbance, set off to find transport. It was a holiday, so very few buses were running. In a moment of serendipity, I was picked up by a good Samaritan who just happened to live on the very same road I was headed to. Equally serendipitous, he also happened to be an officer in the VMF (our paramilitary force). When I explained why I was on the road so late at night, he volunteered to accompany me to the house.

The man –the coward– who had been terrorising my adoptive family slunk away as we approached.

Lucky for him that he did. No, I wasn’t going to beat him up. I was prepared to do far worse than that. I was going to detain him, forcibly if necessary, and make it my mission to see that he was punished to the fullest extent of the law. I was going to shame him publicly by standing him before a judge, by documenting his every action, by talking to his chief, his pastor and his family. By letting the world know exactly what kind of perverse, despicable acts he had committed.

Much as I might enjoy it, using mere violence against this man would only reinforce the message that might makes right. Seeing him punished by society at large is a much more patient, even painstaking, process. But ultimately the effects are more enduring.

The ability of men to act with impunity against other people, to terrorise the weak and intimidate even the strong, is a problem shared by every Pacific island nation. And yet it remains undocumented and unrecognised in large parts of Pacific societies. It allows men to terrorise their fellow villagers from Wewak to Apia to Majuro and beyond. It creates the illusion of strength and power through predation. It effectively imprisons women and children. It makes cowards out of men who should –who do– know better.

It sickens me sometimes to hear the shallow, thoughtless bromides that emerge in social development discussions whenever this topic comes up. I have to fight the urge to swear whenever I see the phrase ‘gender-based violence’. I’ve learned that whenever this phrase emerges, I have to brace myself for more hypocrisy, inaction and cowardly hand-wringing. I have to fight the urge to manhandle ministers of state back to the table, to force them either to take some real action or, failing that, to quit pretending they care.

I have known countless friends, adoptive family members and neighbours who have allowed themselves or others near them to fall victim to violent, abusive, coercive behaviour. (I mean that literally: I have lost count of the victims I have met.) I have written about it for years, apparently to no effect. Back in 2010, I wrote:

If I seem angry, that’s because I am. I have encountered instances of children solicited for sex, fathers turning their wives out and taking up with their under-age daughters, dozens of cases of rape and abuse, and some acts of violence that would make your blood curdle.

None of these appeared in the news or even in the crime statistics. Few of them were ever dealt with under law or kastom. It’s as if they don’t exist.

Today though, thanks to the bravery of a remarkable woman, I can talk about at least one case. On December 18th 2013, the Samoa Observer featured a photograph of Lemalu Sina Retzlaff smiling through her bruises and stitches. The newspaper reported that her ex-husband, a former member of the Samoan national rugby squad, beat her up in front of dozens of witnesses at a children’s concert in Apia. Sina’s photograph, republished here with her permission, is clear evidence of the brutality of the assault.

I met Sina earlier this year when she was participating in a fellowship partly sponsored by my employer. As someone who has experienced abuse (even grown men were children once), I was able to talk in detail with her about the psychological impact, the survival tactics one learns, and the means to step out from under the shadow of fear.

Sina  –along with many others– has decided that enough is enough. We won’t be ruled by fear any more, because we’ve already experienced enough of it to last a lifetime. There comes a time when, if you want to continue living, you have to leave your fear behind.

It shames and enrages me to see men who have never had to face real danger cower in situations which, if only they chose to face their fear, would involve nothing more than a little emotional discomfort. Instead they let the problem fester. And having allowed themselves to be dominated in small ways, they find themselves unable to oppose others in any way at all.

Reports are currently circulating that a group of men were able to thwart Port Vila airport security, and to physically remove a woman, who was attempting to flee her estranged partner, from the plane she had boarded. The fact that a group of men, no matter how angry, were willing even to consider such an act is an indictment of our society, our culture and the character of the individuals involved.

In fairness, it’s been reported that the men responsible were taken into police custody, and that the woman was protected until her departure on the next day’s flight. But it should never have come to that. Had someone –anyone– acted to prevent the abuse that led her to flee, this despicable incident would not have happened.

Those who have suffered understand that the fear of violence is often worse than the violence itself. Perhaps, like creatures adapted to a toxic environment, we learn to ignore the merely terrifying in order to cope with the outright deadly. In any case, it’s clear that more people need to step clear of their cowardice, more people need to understand that even the most aggressive will back down in the face of mere disapproval.

The recent appointment of veteran politician Natasha Stott Despoja as Australian global ambassador for women and girls is at once inspiring and discouraging. The continuation of ostensibly enlightened nations to pigeonhole the worst aspects of the culture of impunity as ‘women’s issues’ once again leaves the way clear for the men who could make the greatest difference to do nothing. Happily, it seems certain that Ms Stott Despoja will not rest easy in her chains. I had the chance to speak briefly with her during a recent visit to Vanuatu, and it immediately became clear that she is determined, experienced and possessed of rare intelligence. I only hope that the Australian government takes her as seriously as she takes her new vocation.

But no amount of dedication, bravery and commitment will suffice if men and women throughout the Pacific refuse to set aside their fear and continue to acquiesce in the face of brutality large and small.

Sina –and countless others throughout the Pacific– knows the remarkable freedom that comes when you lay down the burden of fear. The danger does not diminish, perhaps. The effort, if anything, increases. But here’s the good part: Put your fear aside, and you can win.

Remain ruled by it, and you never will.