Thursday, March 9, 2017
ADVOCATING FOR POLICY CHANGES and ADDRESSING CULTURAL NORMS
The following speech was delivered at the Guam Coalition Against Sexual Assault & Family Violence’s Technical Advisory Group meeting on Saipan on February 22, 2017 by Senator Shelten G. Neth of the Pohnpei Legislature.
ADVOCATING FOR POLICY CHANGES
ADDRESSING CULTURAL NORMS
It was an early day in September in the year of our Lord 2015 – The whole world woke up to a very disturbing picture that was being played out on the morning news. The picture was of a young boy, only three years old. He was laying face down at the water’s edge –waves were breaking all around him. He didn’t move. That was because he was dead. The voice of the newscaster droned on….Little Alan Kurdi was drowned at sea… a victim of the attempt of his mother and father to flee with their small and helpless children from the ravages of a very cruel and very destructive war in Syria…They were but refugees -- trying to make it to safety on the shores of Turkey. But that was not to be. Their boat capsized. Little Alan was drowned…never again to hear the sounds of laughter….Never again to see the smiling faces of his loving mom and dad.
When I saw that picture….my heart was consumed with sorrow….I didn’t care that the little boy was Syrian…I didn’t care that he wasn’t from my clan….I didn’t even care that he was not from Pohnpei. He was just a tiny child. And now he was gone.
Things are not the same when I see a young boy walking down the path towards my home in Madolenihmw, Pohnpei. Who is he? Where is he from? Is he an outer islander? Probably not. He looks like a Chuukese?
Here in the islands, we put labels on everyone. And those labels are not necessarily always friendly. That is our custom. And I was raised in custom. When I grew up in the sixties and seventies, there were no roads to my village, no phones, no internet, just jungle. To get all the way to Kolonia Town, which was about 25 miles from my home, we had to use an outrigger canoe or a small wooden boat. We didn’t get to town very often. Town is where the government was housed. I knew little about government. Just a couple of white guys in abandoned Quonset Huts, my father told me. They came to take the place of the American soldiers.
Today, things are different. I have a traditional title. I still respect my customs and traditions. But today is unlike my days as a child. Today I am an elected Senator representing the people of Madolenihmw. Today I make laws.
Which brings me to the topic of today’s message:
-Advocating for Policy Changes and Addressing Cultural Norms –
As a Senator, I make laws --- but in making those laws I must follow the rules of law. The biggest rule is the Pohnpei Constitution…That constitution tells me that I have to treat everybody equally…main islander and outer islander alike.
As a Senator, I take my place in the Legislature. I introduce new legislation on a multitude of topics….I debate with my colleagues….And then I cast my vote when my name is called on the roll -- along with the other 22 members of our August Body. Maybe my bill gets passed ---maybe not. That is the essence of democracy.
But as a man of my traditional kingdom, I must respect the Nahnmwarki and all those whose titles are greater than mine. Their wish is my command. That’s not written down in a rule book….it’s tradition!!! And tradition, my traditional leaders tell me, is not subject to change or debate. It’s always been that way.
So my friends. How do we live in a society where we have both democratic government and customs and traditions? What is the difference between them? Let me count the ways. I will list down seven basic contrasts that have already come to my mind. At the end of this conference, you may have many more.
First and foremost. Law is designed; custom is evolved. Law is explicitly and deliberately made in the here and now by the power of government, whereas custom is a group of attitudes and practices that have gradually emerged out of hundreds, if not thousands of years of communal living.
Second. Law reaches over vast geographical distances. Customs evolve in a compact social setting, separate and apart from all others who are not apart of our particular clan or grouping.
Third. Law is applied by dedicated institutions of government and is coercively enforced by specialized agencies and personnel. Custom does not depend on recognizable agencies or instrumentalities for its functions. Adherence to custom is imposed by the looks and reactions of those of higher rank and privilege than myself. It is also enforced by the laughter and scorn of those who rank below me.
Fourth. Law is detailed and meant to be unambiguous; customs are not. In writing laws we intend -- by definite and clear language -- to instruct not only our constituents, but also our elected and appointed leaders, on what to do and what not to do. Customs are not written down in pen and ink. They are not accessible on the Traditional Kingdom web site. We know the customary rules because we are a part of the custom itself.
Fifth. Laws are readily subject to modification and change. Customs are not. As conditions change in the world around us, legislators are hard at work adapting our written codes of laws to the incoming changes as they appear on the scene. In customs, we don’t look forward. We look back in time, always striving to be like our forefathers and foremothers who lived in the “good old times” --- before the arrival of foreigners with all of their books and guns.
Sixth. To get rid of a law, the Legislature needs only to pass a single page bill of REPEAL. On the other hand, customs linger on. They have a life of their own and tend to persist long after their usefulness may have vanished.
Seventh. Law tends to be more optimistic than custom. It tends to be more dedicated to pursuits that strive to conquer the immediate problems that surround us so that we can build a better future for ourselves and our children. Laws begin with an idea in the mind of a legislator. That idea finds definition in the form of a bill for an act. Other legislators add to the idea, and then the idea is enacted into a statute. Custom, on the other hand, is the gradual acknowledgement and acceptance of routines. Customs are the product of daily experiences. The growth of customs is not focused on singular subjects. Customs are consumed with general notions of how my family can get along with your family who happens to live next door.
In my experience, both as a man of custom and as a man of law, I can think of no better example of how these two very different concepts of controlling the patterns of life exist beside each other than the legislation that I recently introduced to address the problems of family violence in the State of Pohnpei. My particular piece of legislation did not emerge as a new idea; family violence bills have been with the Legislature for almost a decade. But no measure dedicated to addressing the problems of family violence has ever passed the Legislature, and that’s sad.
The bills that have been introduced over the years in the Pohnpei Legislature are fairly conventional. Spousal abuse and abuse of children are problems common to all of our islands as they are in the United States where we get most of the language for these bills. But while the abuse is the same on both sides of the Pacific, the reasons that families in Micronesia so frequently experience family violence find few parallels on the US Mainland. Therein may lay the problem with getting a family violence bill enacted in the State of Pohnpei.
The family violence bills in Pohnpei -- sometimes referred to as domestic violence measures -- have undergone numerous public hearings. They have been the subject of expert advice and considerable community input, but there seems to be little agreement among the witnesses or even the legislators themselves on how a family violence measure should best be worded. First the witnesses push for wider and wider application and tougher and tougher sentencing, but then the momentum swings the other way.
“Let’s limit the bill to nuclear families only, not to extended families. Large families are beyond our control. In our culture, fathers have the right to punish their children. It’s always been that way. So let’s limit the bill only to abuse between husbands and wives. Many men and women in our culture have a number of former spouses in their backgrounds. And those men and women have children by their former husbands and wives currently living with them in their present houses. Let’s limit child abuse only to the children of the current marriage.”
The last suggestion introduces us to an aspect of island culture that may lay at the heart of the question of why family violence is so prevalent in Micronesia. Sexual assaults on the daughters of former husbands are, unfortunately, quite common in the islands. A blood father feels much more protective of his own daughters than those of other men.
While the bills on family violence have stalled in the Legislature, another bill addressing sexual assault flowed through our Legislative Assembly quite easily. That was the law the we enacted on human trafficking. As islands that are surrounded by an ocean full of tuna, the ports of our islands serve as way stations for the giant fleets of fishing boats that navigate all across our vast ocean. The crews of those boats, who are most often young, low paid, Asian men, have been at sea for weeks, if not months. When they get to shore, they are looking for action. At one point, the FSM Attorney General issued a directive that the crews of these vessels would not be permitted to come on shore at any time, but that seemed very cruel. The passage of a law on human trafficking was seen by many as a compromise between the allowance of human freedoms and the enforcement of responsible conduct.
The bill on human trafficking sailed through the Legislature quite smoothly, but that was not the case forty years ago. When the Ponape District Legislature of Trust Territory times introduced a bill to prevent prostitution and pandering, the general public was provoked. Perhaps the largest crowd to ever attend a public hearing descended on the Assembly Hall. The crowd of mostly women occupied every seat, stood in every door and peered through every window. It was thought by the legislators of the time that the women were there to encourage the passage of the bill to protect their daughters and to punish those who would discredit the honor of the young women of Ponape. But that was not the case. The women who crowded the Assembly Hall were incensed that their elected leaders would even consider the question of whether any of their daughters would even entertain the thought of offering their bodies to the public. That, they shouted out, is totally against our customs and traditions.
The law on prostitution was finally passed by the legislature of so long ago, but not without a fight.
The passage of the law on prostitution came about soon after the introduction of Peace Corps to the islands, and that may have been the motivation for the District Legislature to take such a bold action so many years ago. For the first time, young Pohnpeian men were seeing the likes of young, white, motivated women roaming the paths of their villages. And these young women were quite vulnerable as the Peace Corps doctrine of the time was to have their volunteers live in close communion with the islanders they were sent to serve.
“Be on your guard,” the Peace Corps directors cautioned the new Peace Corps recruits. “Ponapeans don’t look on sex as we do in the United States. There is not even a word for “rape” in the Ponape language.” Well, actually there is. We call it “nenkuhnketail”, but the Pohnpeian expression doesn’t really carry the same appalling connotations that come with the American word “rape”. In my discussions on this topic, even when speaking in Pohnpeian, I will use the English term for that reprehensible conduct. It connotes exactly what that misbehavior is all about.
As legislators, we seek to understand the underlying causes of a problem and try to choose the right words in expressing the moral context of how those problems play out in our contemporary societies before we attempt to make policy changes, but in the face of competing culture, how is that done?
My friends. During this meeting, I hope to learn a little from all of you, since the question of how best to address family violence and human trafficking within the cultural context of our islands is a question to which we are all seeking answers.
There is an excuse for not taking action on this or any other subject of legislative consideration that I often hear, and it goes something like this.
“Pohnpei is just one or two generations out of the jungle. How can we be expected to run a responsible democracy. We are just too new at the game. The Rule of Law is fundamental to democracy, but just listen to the news. America is supposed to be the most advanced nation on earth, but even their newly elected President seems to have trouble understanding the Rule of Law. If even the United States of America can’t get it right, why should we be expecting more from ourselves?”
I beg to differ. Maybe we are but just two generations out of the jungle, but the Rule of Law came to us much earlier than the Trust Territory Government.
My dear friends. The Rule of Law came to us with the coming of the missionaries, and that was over a century or two or three ago. The Rule of Law is the Bible. The Rule of Law is the Ten Commandments.
Protections against family violence are not just the subject of modern government policy making. These protections were first voiced over two thousand years ago. Listen to the Word of God as it was written down in Colossians 3:18-21 ---
Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them. Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord. Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.
Who can find a better policy than that?
I can. It appears in the Gospel of John, and it comes from the lips of Jesus himself.
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you.
So to the mix of customs and law, I am introducing us to a third factor affecting our lives and behavior in the islands --- our religious beliefs. And those beliefs may stand as a bridge that can link law and custom together. In the first chapter of our criminal code there is a section entitled “Discretion as to prosecution of crimes for which there is a satisfactory customary settlement.” The section stipulates exactly what the title points to. Central to our customs, is the concept of forgiveness –the offering of a cup of sakau. This is done in a very solemn ceremony, often presided over by the highest traditional leaders. Its purpose is to restore peace and tranquility in the community.
Both of our legislative measures on family violence and on human trafficking define these types of conduct as crimes against the people of Pohnpei for which harsh sentencing is accorded. But the criminal aspect of these measures occupy just a small portion of the legislation. The bulk of the legislation is directed to protections and counseling, These measures punish the offenders, but they could already be punished under numerous sections of the conventional criminal code. These measures point towards healing both the offenders and the offended.
So there we have it. The customs of our islands, the morals of our religious beliefs and the directives of law, all working together for a singular purpose. And that , my friends is how we can truly achieve policy change for the good of our people --- both now and in the future.
Thank you for offering me the opportunity to speak on a subject that is very dear to my heart.
May God bless us all.