The study conducted by academic Debbie Futter-Puati also reveal there is a lack of sexual safety for youth in the country.
According to the study done two years ago, about a quarter (23 per cent) of youth reported that they had “ever” been forced to have sex.
It added that 12 per cent reported experiencing forced sex in the six months prior to answering the questionnaire in mid-2017.
In her analysis, Futter-Puati argues that when a quarter of the aronga mapu population in a country experience sexual violence, there were long-term, inter-generational implications.
“If you see the underside of a tivaevae without the backing it reveals the underside of the stitches. The backing hides from the viewer of the tivaevae the stitches that are put to work to hold the design in place,” Futter-Puati said.
“In the same way, sexual violence is hidden from view, and allowed to continue, as some adults abuse the trust placed in them. Coupled with a lack of available support systems, this leads to aronga mapu being silenced and sexual violence being kept from sight. These unseen stitches, which hide their secret work underneath the view seen on the front of the tivaevae, threaten the beauty of the design on the front.
“When almost a quarter of the aronga mapu in the Cook Islands experience sexual violence as the data indicates, the knots are messy and that they will become unraveled is almost guaranteed, yet how, is unknown.”
Futter-Puati said sexual abuse was often associated with young women, however the study revealed that young men are also at risk of sexual abuse in the Cook Islands.
“The median age of first forced sex was 16 and the approximate median age of perpetrators was 19. Of those that had experienced forced sex, 90 were female and 55 were male, representing 24 per cent of the female participants and 18 per cent of the male participants in this study,” said the findings.
Respondents identified that most of the time the perpetrators had been someone close to them.
The perpetrators included a parent (2 per cent), neighbour (3 per cent), work colleague (4 per cent), relative (6 per cent), family friend (16 per cent) - 30 per cent of the sexual violence was committed by partners, and 20 per cent was instigated by strangers.
Participants then identified that the sexual violence most often occurred at parties (41 per cent), at home (19 per cent), or at “other” venues (28 per cent). Futter-Puati said this data suggests that intimate partner violence is common with youth.
“In comparison, 13 per cent of women in the ‘Te Ata O Te Ngakau: Shadows of the Heart. Cook Islands Family Health and Safety Study’ reported experiencing partner sexual violence (Cook Islands Ministry of Health, 2014).”
Futter-Puati said a number of risk factors were identified in this study that placed Cook Islands women at higher risk of intimate partner violence. They include partners: with less education, in parallel relationships with other women, who consumed alcohol, or, that had a history of violence in their lives.
“It is possible that these same risks could be applicable to aronga mapu although it does not necessarily account for the young men experiencing sexual violence,” she added.
Futter-Puati also said when asked about why youth have sex or get into relationships, the participants indicated that pressure to be sexual could extend beyond peer pressure to participate to being coerced into sex by their peers.
“While the physical repercussions of sexual violence, as well as early and unprotected sex, may show through the physical ramifications of such encounters (such as STIs, pregnancies or injuries), it is challenging to measure the impact on the other dimensions of pito’enua.
“How the social, mental and emotional, or spiritual health costs manifest themselves in aronga mapu who experience sexual violence is unknown, although the high suicide rate, and the high level of alcohol (mis)use by aronga mapu in the Cook Islands, could be considered to be related to this data.”
Futter-Puati said the data from the study indicates the necessity of teaching the skills required to develop and be able to identify positive healthy relationships, challenge gender norms, and seek help.
The Cook Islands Family Health and Safety Study (2014) report makes many recommendations for addressing family violence in the Cook Islands.
One recommendation in particular, she said was applicable to this study – “raise awareness, especially amongst youth, to better understand the long term commitments and responsibilities involved in establishing healthy relationships”.
“This data shows that some young people in the Cook Islands are not safe and that the community needs to explore why, and how, the vulnerability of aronga mapu is tolerated.
“It is imperative that the Cook Islands community be proactive, and accountable, taking responsibility for the safety of the nation’s aronga mapu.
“The data indicates the high level of abuse that is happening, and suggest that schools, and community educational organisations need to intervene urgently through teaching programmes to develop skills to prevent abuse, to recognise when abuse is happening, and how to make it stop, as well as how to get support.”