Behind closed doors: How domestic violence among Pacific Islanders remains in the shadows

UPDATE Sept. 13, 2018: Because of concern for Lana’s safety, everyone in the story was given a pseudonym, and Victor was not contacted for comment. Lana’s abuse was documented through interviews with witnesses, hospital records, text messages and other reporting. Since this story was published, a relative of Victor contacted Peninsula Press to dispute Lana’s account of the abuse.

The sun was up when Lana and Victor began arguing in their O’ahu laundromat. Lana said she had confronted Victor because he kept throwing side glances at a woman he appeared to know, someone Lana suspected he was sleeping with.

Lana stormed outside, sat in the passenger’s seat of their car—where they had been living just a few months prior—and punched the dashboard in anger. Victor followed her and got in the driver’s seat, according to Lana’s account. He saw that Lana had broken one of the plastic rungs on the A/C vent, she said.

Victor allegedly grabbed his pregnant girlfriend by the hair and began to hit her. He dragged her out of the car through the driver’s door and to a nearby lot spilling with tall weeds and grasses, Lana recalled. She said, after he beat her, Victor left.

It was dark, Lana recalled, when Victor returned to take her back to their small studio apartment, but it wasn’t long before he had to take her to the hospital. The pain that had crippled Lana for those hours lying in that empty lot was a series of contractions, she said. She had gone into labor.

Domestic violence among U.S. Pacific Islanders is not well-studied. But according to Lana, her experiences being beaten by her now ex-husband were so commonplace in her Polynesian community that when it happened in public, bystanders often did not take notice.

According to Lana, their daughter Sonia was born eight weeks early that night. Lana said she held her daughter only briefly before the nurse rushed her from the delivery room for treatment.

Sonia was eventually diagnosed with a particularly rare genetic disorder that affects about one in 87,000 Americans. While her condition is genetic, Lana blames herself; she believes she could have saved her daughter if she had left Victor sooner.

For the safety of Lana and her family, all people referenced in her story have been given pseudonyms. Her accounts of abuse were verified by medical records, police complaints, text messages and interviews with friends and family, who did not want to be named out of concern for their safety and relationships.

According to Lana, her experiences being beaten by her now ex-husband were so commonplace in her Polynesian community that when it happened in public, bystanders often did not take notice.

Hidden Data

In the wake of noteworthy sexual assault allegations in the government and Hollywood, the nation is being forced to reckon with the pervasiveness of gender-based violence. But for Pacific Islanders, a population that is small in the U.S. even for a minority group, the prevalence of assault and abuse is easily overlooked by agencies that serve entire cities or counties.

Black, Hispanic and Asian communities make up 12.3, 17.8 and 5.4 percent of the U.S. population respectively, data from the 2016 American Community Survey shows. Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, together, make up just two-tenths of a percent of the U.S. population.

Because the populations from each Pacific Island and Asian nation are so small in the U.S., data from those groups are often collected together, forming the Asian Pacific Islander (often called API) group. But if the larger API groups score better in wellness surveys – such as reporting low rates of domestic violence – their data can obscure problems in the smaller groups.

Of API women in the U.S., 18.3 percent reported being a victim of domestic violence, the lowest rate of all ethnic groups in a 2010-2012 Center for Disease Control survey.

This figure stands in stark contrast with the rates of intimate partner violence in the Pacific Islands: 64 percent of women in Fiji, 46 percent in Samoa and 40 percent in Tonga reported experiencing intimate partner violence in their lifetime, according to survey results released by the United Nations Population Fund.

Within the Pacific Islander (commonly referred to as PI) community, everyone knows someone who has experienced domestic violence, according to Malissa Netane-Jones, a Tongan American who has overseen a San Mateo County Pacific Islander outreach program since 2011. But between cultural taboos and the tendency to handle disputes within the family, Bay Area advocates like Netane-Jones struggle to identify the victims and connect them with resources.

“We’ve found that there was a small number of reported cases of domestic violence among Pacific Islanders,” Netane-Jones said. “Yet, on the coconut wire [a term used primarily in Hawai’i to describe word of mouth], we know it’s very prevalent.”

The “impulse” for collecting data for all Asian subgroups together was an effort to bolster solidarity and “broaden the impact and the understanding of this population group in the U.S.,” said Chic Dabby, executive director of Asian Pacific Institute on Gender-Based Violence, which curates research on domestic violence in the API community.

While data science faces a lot of statistical challenges with small minority populations, Dabby also believes the expectation was that the data would eventually be disaggregated.

Last year, her organization released a report on Pacific Island history in the hope that advocates could “build on [their] skills in cultural humility and provide better support to Pacific Islander survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault.” The report also said that the need to disaggregate API data in the U.S. was “apparent,” and that domestic abuse in the Pacific Islands was “horrifyingly prevalent.”

One advantage of aggregated data is that smaller minority groups are members of larger groups that receive resources. In theory, those resources should trickle into the subgroups. That doesn’t always happen, according to Netane-Jones.

“Not only does that [lack of disaggregation from the Asian population] change funding and resources, it changes how our stories are being told,” Netane-Jones said.

“That’s really frustrating, especially when we know there’s a problem,” she added.

Race and ethnicity aside, experts believe that domestic violence in the United States is significantly underreported. One 2006-2015 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated that nearly half of all U.S. domestic violence cases are never reported. But, in addition to their hidden data, Pacific Islander domestic violence victims face unique barriers to reporting their abuse that could lead to higher rates of underreporting.

For Lana, being abused by a male partner was so common in her family and neighborhood that she rarely thought to call the police or file a report.

“What America calls ‘abuse’ is something normal in our Polynesian culture,” Lana said in an interview.

Lana said despite being abused, she rarely thought to call the police or file a report.

Barriers to leaving: ‘aiga and shame

In Polynesia, the eastern subset of what are generally considered Pacific Islands, extended family (‘aiga in Samoan) is treated with the same obligation as the nuclear family – including family by marriage.

When Victor began abusing Lana, she said, she was just 16. Her mother, who was raised in American Samoa, kicked her out of the house for bringing violence into their home. Lana faced judgment for her abuse, and even today struggles to communicate with her family about the impact Victor’s violence has on her life.

In the U.S., more than a quarter of domestic violence victims reported speaking to a mental health professional about their abuse, according to a 2003 Center for Disease Control report. On average, abuse victims reported attending more appointments with a mental health professional than did victims of intimate partner rape or stalking.

Even so, Lana’s family is averse to discussing mental health and domestic abuse. One sister told Lana that her depression sounded like a “white people problem.”

Shame is a barrier to domestic violence reporting in the Polynesian community, according to Dr. Susan J. Wurtzburg, a sociology lecturer at University of Hawai’i. Word of domestic violence reflects poorly on the entire ‘aiga, Wurtzburg noted in a report advising New Zealand police on domestic violence among Polynesians. But families tend to blame the woman, even though the male partner is often the abuser.

Because extended families often live together (as was Lana’s case in Honolulu), there are also often socioeconomic barriers to leaving an abusive relationship.

At $1,534, Hawai’i has nearly the highest median monthly housing cost in the U.S., second only to Washington, D.C., according to data from the 2016 American Community Survey. Those costs increase in more urban areas.

Often, victims searching for ways out of abusive relationships are not only considering their own cost of living, according to Amanda Pump, director of O’ahu programs at Child & Family Service. Many women seeking help from the domestic violence shelters through Pump’s organization have children with them.

“Leaving that relationship [with their batterer] really means leaving their financial stability,” Pump said in an interview.

For Lana, the police responding to calls about Victor were often Polynesian and were not a viable source of help.

On one of several occasions when Victor beat Lana in public and a bystander called the police, Lana said it did more damage than good. At the time, she was still five months pregnant with Sonia.

When she refused to calm down and get back in the car with Victor, an officer ran her ID and found a warrant for an outstanding traffic ticket. The officer cuffed Lana and brought her to the jail until she could post a $150 bail.

Domestic violence in PI communities is often treated as a spousal disagreement, not a crime, according to Netane-Jones, the San Mateo outreach director. Women are more likely to tell a family member or church leader than the police.

Pacific Island nations have been slow to criminalize domestic violence. Tuvalu, a small island nation in the British Commonwealth, passed a Family Protection and Domestic Violence Bill in 2009 to clarify law enforcement’s responsibilities in domestic violence cases and to introduce protective orders for women.

Tonga and Samoa passed their domestic violence and family safety bills in 2013. But their effectiveness has not been well evaluated. In Aug. 2017, the United Nations announced it would launch an investigation into violence against women in Samoa after their rates of reported domestic violence went from 200 in 2012 to 723 in 2015.

Hawai’i is the state with not only the highest percent PI population, but also the highest percent minority population in the U.S. Even so, it is still a struggle for women’s advocates to combat domestic violence in PI communities, according to Pump.

Some barriers are a result of poor translations. In her outreach, Pump found that some PI languages don’t have good translations for terms like “trauma.” Even for English-speaking members of those communities, the concept of “trauma” doesn’t resonate.

While her office is diverse, it is not nearly representative of the ethnic and cultural backgrounds of all the families they serve. Sometimes, her organization resorts to outreach through local churches, but she feels like that can be an intrusion on a sacred and spiritual space.

“I would be lying if I said it was easy,” Pump said.

Shame is a barrier to domestic violence reporting in the Polynesian community, according to Dr. Susan J. Wurtzburg, a sociology lecturer at University of Hawai’i. Word of domestic violence reflects poorly on the entire ‘aiga, or extended family.


Victor has been arrested twice since Dec. 2017 and charged for violating another woman’s protective order. In the days leading up to his first arrest, Lana said he called her twice and threatened her.

Today, Lana and her fiancé sleep in the living room of their one-bedroom apartment in Oakland, where they moved in 2012. (The Bay Area has one of the largest Pacific Islander populations in the United States.) Their now five children cluster into the bedroom, the youngest ones often crawling in with their parents.

Lana can’t afford childcare. Absent support from friends or family, she stays at home, stringing leis to sell for big events like weddings and graduations.

Aside from the stresses of parenting five children, Lana is, in many ways, still dealing with the aftermath of her abuse. She relies on Medi-Cal, California’s Medicaid program, for weekly therapy. Recently, she said she has been searching for a program that will help pay to repair the molars that broke during one of Victor’s alleged attacks (most domestic violence dental programs only cover front teeth).

Her most consuming worry is for her eldest daughter – whenever Sonia’s symptoms worsen or she is bullied in school for being different from the other children, Lana said she is overcome with guilt for not leaving Victor sooner.

“I don’t know why I didn’t leave him,” Lana said in an interview. “I can’t give an answer to, ‘Why?’ But I honestly felt like I had nowhere to go.”

Correction: A previous version of this article said that Victor had called Lana to threaten her between the periods he was in jail. The article has been updated to reflect that Victor made those calls just before he was arrested the first time in Dec. 2017, according to Lana. 

Correction: The article previously stated that Lana has seven children when in fact, she has five children. She lives in a household with seven people. 

If you or someone you know is being abused, help is available. For more information, go to the National Domestic Violence Hotline or call 1−800−799−7233/TTY 1−800−787−3224.


  • Katlyn Alo

    Katlyn is completing her B.A. in communication with a minor in Spanish at Stanford University. In the 2017-2018 academic year, she will be a master's student in the Stanford Journalism Program. Katlyn is interested in education and policy. She has interned in curriculum development and in a program teaching in Tamil Nadu, India. She likes clumsily trying new adventure sports, loves singing at an inappropriate volume and is unabashedly dependent on coffee.

Scroll to Top