Punanga Tauturu Inc (PTI) coordinator Rebeka Buchanan says the problem is, many Cook Islanders are proud and do not want to feel the shame of others knowing they are struggling.
“We don’t want others to know that we are not coping; but having others knowing is really nothing to be ashamed of, as I tell my clients.”
Buchanan says what is needed is a simple call for help, but people have to convince themselves they need professional help before making some realistic changes in their lives
“You need to know what you want to work on first, such as new goals and that is where we can start, just by listening to the problems.”
She says this helps to identify areas that are causing pain and conflicts and historical patterns that have contributed to the distress.
This is where a supporting environment that can really benefit someone going through something like domestic violence issues, says Buchanan.
“I’m talking about the victim, survivor and perpetrator; everyone needs support and help.”
A 2004 situation analysis of children, youth and women in the Cook Islands by the Cook Islands government and the United Nations International Children’s Fund shows social issues such as teenage pregnancies are particularly prevalent in the Cook Islands.
The report shows that many older teenagers are in stable relationships and it is younger teenage girls under the age of 15 who tend to get pregnant.
“This problem is well known in some respects, but veiled in silence in other respects,” the report says.
The report said the bi-annual Conference of the National Council of Women in 2000 had heard one of the biggest social problems on Aitutaki was very young girls having sexual relationships.
“Some are already in de facto relationships, or affected and traumatised by incest.’
The report said such issues were not getting urgent attention.
In 2003- 2004, the Rarotonga Antenatal Clinic dealt with eight pregnant girls aged 16 or less: one 14-year-old; four 15-year-olds, and three 16-year-olds. Five girls were from Rarotonga and three from the outer islands.
The report concluded that lack of information maintained a “blanket of silence” around important issues.
It said people often talked of these pregnancies as being the outcome of sexual experimentation by young teenagers, but they often involved older men and situations of abuse, rape and incest.
Usually no complaint was made to the police because the girls parents did not want “shame” on their families.
Despite the legal protections that exist, the men involved were rarely brought to justice, the report said.
Child and sexual abuse is reportedly an ongoing issue leading to senior students dropping out of school, particularly in the outer islands.
Residents including in some cases school principals, seemed unaware that adults having sex with children less than 16 years of age constituted sexual abuse of minors, the report added.
Buchanan says child and sexual abuse and many domestic/gender violence cases are not being brought to the attention of authorities in the outer islands because of a lack of resources, although the NGOs are doing their best to run workshops on some issues.
She sees a need to set up social and support groups with the help of some funding to the outer islands, and that those groups need to be established with long-term sustainability in mind.
“If there is lack of understanding and a lack of support services including trained counselors and supportive community leaders then people will continue to be afraid to report.”