These are the things I won’t forget but I wish never happened.
There are several other volunteers here. Not just PCVs, but volunteers from other organizations including GAP/Latitude and Oxford Volunteers. GAP is pretty well supported in-country with a bunch of volunteers all over the place. It is a program for high school grads to take a gap year before college and volunteer as English teachers in a developing nation. The Oxford program is not as well supported. In fact, the entire program last year consisted of 6 volunteers in Vanuatu and one woman supporting them in England. They are all Oxford graduates, hence the name Oxford program.
On our amazing plane ride here, there was another white woman. Katie was part of the Oxford program. After we got here, we were shown around Melsisi and living in the convent with another 2 from the same program. We ended up walking down to Randwadi, the next high school over, where Katie and several other volunteers were working one evening and having dinner with them. The next day, Katie took us around to some sites in the area and general made us feel welcome.
On Friday November 26th, Katie was raped. She was walking home from a goodbye dinner just after sunset. She was attacked from behind by two men, who dragged her off the main road and one of them raped her. She was supposed to leave the island on Saturday morning. She missed her flight because the rivers are all flooded. After she missed her flight, she called Jason and I and we walked to Ranwadi. We spent the weekend with her and the two GAP volunteers who were still at the school. By the end of the weekend, the community had caught the two perpetrators, Katie identified them and they did a kastom ceremony.
The boys were brought in front of the community and forced to stand and be berated by 3 people in two languages for about 45 minutes. Public humiliation and public shame here is a really big deal. I can’t really describe it to do it justice, but because the families are so intertwined and community plays such a huge role in daily life, being shamed in front of your community is really bad. Being forced to stand and listen to how not only have you shamed yourself in the eyes of the community but you’ve also brought shame on your family and your community and ruined the name of this place, well that’s like the Vanuatu equivalent of having your face on the 5 o-clock news with “rapist” underneath.
After the yelling, the chiefs set a fine that the boys and their families would have to pay. The first part was in retribution for Katie’s lost phone. We valued it at 5700 VT, the chief decided 1000 VT would do. Then they had to give her 16 red matts, which is about a third of a bride price. They also had to pay the chiefs of Vanmelang (the county I live in and she lived in) 4 full-circle pig tusks and the chief of Waterfall 2 full-circle pig tusks because it happened on his land. To get a pig tusk to grow in a full circle, you basically have to bottle feed it for about 15 years. The cash equivalent of a red matt is about 2000 VT and the cash equivalent of a pig tusk is about 20,000 VT. The total there is 152,000 VT or about 1,520 USD. The average family makes about 2,300 USD a year.
When Katie told us what had happened, I called our safety and security officer, who called our assistant country director (APCD) who called me back. By the time Katie got on the plane on Monday, my APCD was planning on picking her up at the airport, she would be staying with the APCD who had arranged to have the police come to her house to take the report and set up a doctor visit on a public holiday. Katie got to Vila on Monday and made her police report. On Wednesday, the next day there are flights to Pentecost, the police came and took the two boys. Their arraignment hearing is on Thursday (Dec. 9th). Rumor here is that they will be facing international law and 15 years in prison.
The community response here has been interesting to witness. Many people have gone out of their way to tell me that it is really not ok that it happened. I’ve been told a number of times that the boys should be beaten up, I’ve had offers of people going to go beat them up, I’ve been told the police will beat them up. (Corporeal punishment is viewed differently here, by the way.) I’ve been told that nothing like this has ever happened here before, that it never should have happened. I’ve been told that the boys are from an uncivilized area, they spend too much time in the bush and not enough time in town or in church. Jason has been told that the correct way to deal with being horny is to talk to your mom about finding a wife or if you really can’t stand it go find a pig or a cow. A huge number of people have come to us to tell us that it really, really is not something that is acceptable.
I don’t know if the response we’ve gotten is because they think it is a big deal or because they know it is a big deal to us, but either way, I’ve been impressed with the response. The community has come forward to say that this never should have happened. They are uniformly in favor of the boys going to prison for a very long time. They want it to be completely clear that this is not ok. Similarly, the Peace Corps staff took care of all the aspects of legal and medical things that were needed for Katie, who wasn’t even a PCV. I feel like if anything does happen to me or Jason we will be very well looked after.
Finally, before I get any freaked out comments about how it isn’t safe here, well, it isn’t safe anywhere. The population of Vanuatu is half that of the city of Minneapolis, not including its surrounding area. How many rapes or assaults are there a year in Minneapolis? I’m here to work to improve the quality of life of the people here. Now, I have one more personal reason to work towards women’s rights and equality, sexual and reproductive health education and education about domestic violence. As I said about the death of the boy on the plane, these are events that will forever affect me and will affect my service here. These events will focus my efforts and add fuel to the fire, but they won’t make me quit and run away and hide.
I don’t feel unsafe. I’m also not stupid. I won’t be walking around alone at night but I’m not going to give up every ounce of my freedom to fear.