Trouble In Paradise: Domestic Violence In South Pacific Islands

Research by SMU cultural anthropologist Victoria Lockwood will take her to the remote tropical islands of Tubuai and Rurutu this summer. Tiny dots in the South Pacific, the islands are part of the French Polynesian chain that includes Tahiti. But the focus of her trip will be anything but pleasant.

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Victoria Lockwood

Lockwood, associate professor of anthropology in Dedman College, first went to Tubuai, Rurutu and Tahiti in 1981 as a graduate student working on her doctoral degree at UCLA. Tubuai (pronounced TOO-boo-eye) and Rurutu (Roo-ROO-Two) are small, rural islands known for their white coral beaches and palm trees. When she was a graduate student on Tubuai, there were no hotels on the island, so Lockwood lived with a local family during her yearlong stay.

Since then Lockwood has made seven research trips to Tubuai and its neighboring islands, focusing primarily on the lives of local women and the impact of modernization and globalization. Her research over two decades has produced a large body of scientific work, including journal articles, conference presentations and books. In the course of her studies, however, the women of the islands have revealed another aspect of their lives: details of arguments with their husbands that often result in physical violence.

Those revelations were instrumental to Lockwood’s receipt of a three-year, $128,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. She will investigate the prevalence, causes, meanings and consequences for victims of domestic violence on the island.

“The thing about domestic violence is that people don’t want to talk about it,” Lockwood says. “But because I’ve worked on this island so long, I know these families, and they’ve already talked to me about it.”

LockwoodPix.jpgIsland culture is revealing new information on the types of family violence.

The islands are a fairly gender-egalitarian society, she says, and domestic violence is no more common there than elsewhere in the world. Although the women were distressed that their husbands hit them, they would report that assaults stop after the early years of marriage.

“The word on the street, at least in American society, is that domestic violence doesn’t go away, ‘Once an abuser, always an abuser,’ and that the abuse escalates over time,” Lockwood says. “But that wasn’t the case in Tahiti (Lockwood uses Tahiti to refer to the region and its various islands). And that’s what got me interested in looking at the issue in Tahitian society.”

In recent years, even in American society, psychologists and sociologists have begun to describe the short-lived domestic abuse phenomenon as “situational couple violence,” which typically occurs early in a marriage as a couple attempts to work out balance of power issues and decision-making on various matters. It is initiated by either the husband or wife, and typically fades away. Experts say this is different from battering, which is usually enduring, with the husband normally the aggressor. It escalates into a husband’s psychological obsession to control every aspect of
his wife’s behavior through verbal as well as physical tactics.

One of a few anthropologists to study domestic violence, Lockwood says her research seems to confirm the two different kinds as a broad pattern across societies. In 2005 she conducted preliminary research on the island, interviewing husbands and wives from 25 families about domestic violence that had occurred in their lives.

“If we don’t acknowledge there are two different kinds of domestic violence, then we’ll never understand what the causes are,” Lockwood says. “The causes are very different, so if we
wish to devise policies or social programs, we need to be doing two different things to address the issues.”

Margaret Allen

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