Police are trying to figure out why there is such a significant rise in sexual assault crimes over the past 2-3 years in Tonga, a country that not long ago, the Tongan word for ‘rape’ could not be used in public discourses.
Either cases of rape were unreported or were rare, there was no reason to be alarmed.
But, times have changed. Almost every week now, there is a case before the courts where sexual assault is the alleged crime. The word ‘rape’ is being more commonly used in conversations, and even in media.
Last week, for example, there were three sexual assault cases before the courts. One was a case of a man being charged for rape, when he allegedly raped a patient he was massaging. The accused was found guilty and sentenced to jail.
Another case involved a man who raped two under 12 daughters of his girlfriend whom he lived with. He was found guilty and jailed.
The third case involved a father who sexually assaulted his two young daughters in a relationship of incest. He was found guilty and jailed.
In a country where sexual offences incur more a feeling of shame than guilt, the shame factor has become something less common that in the past 20-25 years. A rapist twenty years ago would not only carry a jail sentence but also received the wrath of relatives and the village, as well as the general public.
Most social workers that work in the counseling and care of victims of sexual assault believe that sexual crimes are part of the general increase in domestic violence against women and children.
Lawyer Teimumu Tapueluelu, President of the Women in Law Society, in her paper on ‘Domestic Violence, the Legal Remedy’ presented at the Tonga History Association Conference, said that “Tonga’s legal system cannot effectively protect the victims of domestic violence until there is a change of attitudes and behavior across society.”
“There is absolutely no excuse for violence against your wife or child in your home… its bad, its illegal, it’s an impediment to social and economic development, and most devastatingly, it damages the well-being of families,” Teimumu said.
Teimumu advocates stronger penalties and process interventions through the legal system.
“Our society allows men to make excuses and sometimes hold women and children responsible for the violence perpetrated against them. Much of the oppression of women and children in the home directly benefits men, and in most cases this oppression is accompanied by violence. Men who are violent towards members of their households are behaving from within a belief system, which informs them that they have a right to supremacy, to own and control their women and children.”
Because the majority of victims of domestic violence were overwhelmingly women and children, Teimumu said, complaints to the police were often promptly withdrawn due to family or financial pressures.
Teimumu also said that a major barrier to the effective enforcement of the laws against domestic violence was the lack of resources and trained personnel within the relevant authorities to handle domestic violence cases.
Even though there are a number of NGOs in Tonga providing “shelters” serving victims of domestic violence, Teimumu said that Tonga lacked the proper support system for victims in terms of alternative shelter, financial support and other such institutions.
Penalties for sexual assault ranged from up to 2 years to up to life imprisonment.
Consequences of domestic violence resulting in death, may incur sentences of up to 14 years for manslaughter and up to life, or death penalty, for murder.