When preteen Cindy Wase told her grandmother that she’d been sexually assaulted by a drunk cousin, the older woman asked her not to tell her grandfather. One act of violence could lead to another.
“He’ll kill him,” Wase’s grandmother said.
Years later, Wase is now the mother of a young daughter. While she sees her assailant walk free, she isn’t silent anymore.
“I thought maybe my story could help someone,” Wase said.
Wase is one member in a team of women advocates for WUTMI, Women United Together Marshall Islands. The nongovernment, nonprofit organization provides counseling services and assistance to women aged 14 and up in the Marshall Islands who have been targeted by gender-based violence or are experiencing domestic abuse and sexual assault.
Hearing the story of a survivor like Wase can help others in this struggle for human rights; however, many women continue to remain silent due to a range of personal and cultural concerns, said Wase.
According to a national survey published by WUTMI in 2014, more than 65 percent of Marshallese female respondents had experienced gender-based violence. Of the 2014 respondents, survey data indicated 90 percent chose never to tell anyone.
For Wase, speaking up means equipping her daughter with valuable tools in a discussion that has grown to address motherhood, violence, customs, and family—issues shaping the lives of Marshallese women and girls.
“My daughter is 11 years old, now,” said Wase. “I talk to her. I tell her what to look out for.”
Together with their sponsoring partners, WUTMI is raising awareness about its mission. Support from the international community has helped expand program offerings to include an array of training for law enforcement, medical screenings for cancer and women’s health, and methods to address substance abuse, parenting and the intersection of gender and disaster management. Online, the program reports affiliation with 22 member chapters from outer islands and program support growing in Hawaii and California.
Women on Ebeye can visit Weto in Mour, a local WUTMI office established earlier this year. Plans are also in development to create an Ebeye safehouse and to promote program awareness and outreach in the Ebeye community.
“I want them to know they are not alone,” Wase said, of those with whom she shares her story. “I didn’t know about anything like WUTMI, before.”
Others are joining in the effort to spread the WUTMI message. In October, additional support from USAG-KA provided education to key members of the garrison community. Program advocates met with emergency responders, the garrison legal counsel and personnel from the USAG-KA Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention program. They discussed cultural issues and program goals with members of island law enforcement and school and health officials. A speaking engagement with island high school students is tentatively planned for next year.
Wase continues to share her story, to meet with women and organizations throughout the RMI and to speak with young women. She knows change and healing begin with one voice.
“If you are a woman or girl who has experienced sexual assault, speak up,” said Wase. “It will cause more problems if you stay quiet. It can be traumatizing. You are not alone.”