When most of us think of island countries like Fiji and the Solomon Islands, we picture colorful plant life, gorgeous ocean views, and a place removed from troubles and fears; in short, we picture a sort of paradise. These are also the first things that come to my mind when I think of these and similar places. That is, theywere the first things that came to my mind before I became a WomanStats coder. Reading about women in a particular area more often than not flips conventional ideas about that area on their heads thus allowing you to see clearly the grime between the tiles of culture and society. This has proven to be true as I have read about the situation of women in Melanesia (Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu).
Where I once would have seen pristine beaches and beautiful waters as I pictured these countries, I now imagine the pain, fear, and endurance that is surely etched into some of the faces of the women of these countries. You see, although these places may be prime spots for tourists to get their perfect tans, they’re also prime spots for local women to get beaten, raped, verbally insulted, or otherwise abused. According to focus group interviews, some common forms of abuse are beating, choking, whipping, pulling hair, burning with fire, and banging the head on the ground. Add to that verbal slurs such as “slut,” “prostitute,” and “you’re just a woman” and you begin to realize that the paradise these women are living in is anything but. In addition to all of this, I then discovered that these women very rarely go anywhere alone because rape is common enough that each solo outing presents a significant risk. So they go out together or they stay home. But are they safe there? Not according to the woman who reported that her husband beats her, rips her clothes off, and rapes her all while her helpless children look on and plead for him to stop. For this woman and others like her, home may be one of the riskiest places for her to be. This risk is not just for those women who live with their partners either; many women reported being beaten and raped by their boyfriends just because they wanted to use a condom.
As if these violent atrocities against the women of “paradise” weren’t enough to sicken anyone, I further discovered that these countries have additional perils for women which are perhaps more heinous than the ones already listed. In addition to men beating and raping their significant others for wanting to use protection, there is a special protocol for those women who are viewed as, shall we say “uppity,” and desire to exercise rights, opinions, and autonomy. When a man has a girlfriend like this and decides that it is time for her to “learn her lesson,” he will inform his friends of when and where he’s planning on having sex with her so they can ambush and gang rape her to put her in her place. Not only are women punished for exercising independence, but they also have to pay a terrible price for contracting an STD. This terrible phenomenon was discovered when HIV/AIDS treatment medications began to become available in these countries. Women would come in for one treatment and by the time they came back for their next, it was often with bruises and broken bones because their partners brutally assaulted them as their quest for treatment brought their condition out of the shadows. The fact that the women generally contracted these apparently infuriating STDs from their abusive partners was apparently not relevant. Finally, because many of these countries have various clans, women are often exchanged between clans to settle feuds with little regard for the women themselves. In fact, there were reported cases in which men of one tribe were allowed to repeatedly rape a woman of another in order to settle a feud between them. This unenlightened tradition is practiced because clearly causing an uninvolved woman irreparable physical and psychological harm somehow solves the problem.
In short, although I love doing research for the WomanStats project, you cannot learn more about the women of the world without being exposed to a dark underside of the realities we’ve always taken for granted. Whether it’s discovering that the U.S. health system systematically discriminates against motherhood or learning that the white beaches of popular tourist destinations mask the blood and tears of the women who can’t leave after a few days, I’ve discovered that learning not only involves comprehending the good but also gaining a more detailed understanding of the bad and the ugly. Either way, knowledge is power and I can only hope that the knowledge of paradise infected will violence will be used to aid in the cure so that the paradise we imagine can be a reality and not merely a façade.