You might have noticed that a lot of women were posting the words ‘Me Too’ to their social media timelines this week.
If you didn’t, then shame on you.
I confess I was deeply torn by this phenomenon. I wanted to join the chorus, to add my own story to the tales of abuse and victimisation streaming across my screen.
I could do it. I’ve earned the right to. But I can’t.
On the one hand, I can’t bring myself to believe that I actually deserve sympathy. Decades later, I still feel that it’s wrong to bring these things up, that I’m wrong to complain, that it wasn’t nearly as bad as I remember, that I’m just making a big deal out of nothing.
I’m sure there are one or two women who feel the same.
On the other hand, there is an important and fundamental difference between my experience and the experience of the overwhelming majority of women in Vanuatu. I was targeted individually, by individuals. Once those circumstances changed, I was safe—or at least free to begin undoing the damage.
But women in Vanuatu are never free from the risk of violence and sexual abuse. They are not safe in the home. That’s where most of it happens. They are not safe when they’re with friends and family. Friends and family are the ones who hurt them most. They are not safe in the streets. They are not safe in public places.
They are not safe at work, on the bus, on a date, in a restaurant, in the clubs or even in church.
To be a woman in Vanuatu is to spend one’s life living with the daily risk of violence and abuse.
And because it affects every woman in Vanuatu, it affects us all.
Not all men rape or sexually abuse women. Not all men commit acts of violence. But all men are responsible. Look me in the eye, and tell me you have never tolerated an act of violence against women… and I will call you a liar.
I know, because I’m just as guilty as you are. Yes, I’ve physically intervened in assaults. I’ve ensured that women are respected and valued in my home and my workplace.
But I still failed, again and again and again. I’m ashamed that I allowed some women to face danger when I could have done more. I cringe when I recall my countless, thoughtless actions that make women feel unsafe.
In 2010, following the murder and rape of a young woman in Freswota, I penned these thoughts:
Just as the mightiest tree often comes from the smallest seed, Vanuatu continues to reap this bitter harvest because women are subject to coercion.
It’s so much easier when you can end every argument with a quick clip across the mouth. Why take the time to reason or explain?
It’s so much easier just to lure her into the bushes, or drag her if she resists. Why invest weeks and months of effort, earning the understanding and affection of someone who could help you become more than you could ever be alone? What does it matter if she’s willing or not?
It’s so much easier to sit with her father and uncles and arrange her future for her. Pack her off while she’s still young, because domesticating her is easier than nurturing a human being, an equal in life. She’s being looked after. Why should she complain?
Because unimportance breeds resentment. Resentment breeds disrespect. Disrespect breeds contempt. Contempt breeds angry words. Angry words lead to blows.
It saddens me—and sickens me—that these words are still relevant today.
By this time, some of you will be saying, ‘Yes, but…’
Yes, but not all men…. Yes, but some women too.... Yes, but there are two sides….
Let’s make a deal: How about we start with the ‘yes’ part, and solve that one first? We promise to talk about the second part once we’re done, okay?
But today, let’s stick with this.
I don’t know what we can do to heal ourselves. Sometimes I feel the sickness runs too deep, that all we can do is treat the symptoms and hope for a better day. Maybe some of us are too broken ever to be whole.
But I do know what we can do for our daughters. We can save them from this. We can listen to them. We can believe them. We can protect them.
We can protect them from us.
We can value them, and love them, and tell them so.
We can look at them every morning and think about today’s endless chorus of ‘Me Too’…
… and vow ‘But Not Her.’