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December 01, 2013

A Micronesian Advocate Helps to Create Safer Environments for Women

December 2013

“Domestic violence is about violence; whether the violence is within the home or outside the home, any violence is wrong—the Bible preaches against violence,” pleaded Yoslyn Sigrah, talking to her fellow churchgoers after a service. Yoslyn is a Micronesian advocate who previously served as a staff attorney with the Federated States of Micronesia’s Supreme Court and now heads the Kosrae Women’s Association, a decade-old non-governmental organization. The association has more than 500 members and is dedicated to women’s and children’s rights, including to gender equality and combating domestic violence in Micronesia.

Yoslyn Sigrah

In 2012, Yoslyn—along with 23 other Pacific Islanders—took part in a six-week fellowship program in the United States. Organized by the ABA Rule of Law Initiative (ABA ROLI), the program seeks to boost the fellows’ ability to advocate for and provide legal services to women, particularly those who have experienced violence. During the extended visit, fellows were paired with anti-domestic violence organizations. Working with a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit, AEquitas, Yoslyn learned about U.S. approaches to addressing domestic violence. As part of her fellowship, she assessed existing Micronesian resources for addressing the mental and physical health needs of domestic violence victims and then designed a three-year strategic plan to combat domestic violence in the Federated States of Micronesia, seeking support from key stakeholders, including government agencies and legislators.

“The D.C. experience sensitized [me] to the real issues of violence against women and children,” says Yoslyn. “[It] gave me confidence, tools, knowledge [and] inspiration.”

Armed with her newly learned skills, the Micronesia- and U.S.-educated lawyer, returned home to continue combating domestic violence. Working to end domestic violence is hard—a task made more difficult in the Pacific Islands as the crime is broadly considered a family affair not to be discussed in public. The most common reaction to domestic violence is denial. Additionally, superstitious beliefs and fear of invoking further violence keep many women and children from sharing their ordeals.

No matter how often they are abused, bruised and scarred, “victims are supposed to swallow the pain and pretend it never happened,” says Yoslyn. “And the cycle of violence goes on and on.” Yoslyn adds that she was not immune to this culture of silence herself. “I did not want them to attack the offenders, because the offenders are my people, my fellow islanders,” she said. “There was…[a] sense of helplessness, of wanting to stop the insanity but just going along with the insanity. [I was] thinking and praying that one of these days these guys would just stop beating and learn to live within the light of peace.”

Her participation in the ABA ROLI fellowship program helped Yoslyn break through the barrier of traditional behavior, equipping her with the confidence she needed to overcome the challenges of speaking out against domestic violence. “[In the past,] I could not say it out loud,” says Yoslyn. “But now, it’s sliding out easily ..., and when I say it, I still see people [grimacing and] giving me looks like I am a trouble-maker.”

During her fellowship, she also analyzed domestic violence statutes in U.S. states and territories, eventually assisting in drafting domestic violence legislation that would create a safer environment for women and that is awaiting adoption in Micronesia. The legislation would criminalize domestic violence in Yoslyn’s native island of Kosrae, allow police to arrest abusers inside and outside of the home, and ensure victims’ access to health care and courts.

Since early 2013, Yoslyn and her colleagues have been pushing for the legislation’s adoption. If passed, this would make the island the first Micronesian state to pass a domestic violence law and the first to comply with the Convention to Eliminate all forms of Discrimination against Women—but the work is an uphill battle.

In July, the Kosrae State Government created the Council on Custom and Tradition, which has deterred the passage of the bill, petitioning the legislature to table it. Despite setbacks, Yoslyn’s group continued to hold village workshops and gathered supporting testimonies from victims and witnesses of domestic violence. The prospect of a new law gave many people new-found courage, and citizens spoke out publicly. One female doctor shared the story of a man who beat his wife to death, while one man spoke of how he witnessed a father attacking his child with a machete. One after another they spoke, with several witnesses emphasizing that often people who want to help find themselves helpless because there is no law to guide them on what to do when they witness such violence. The group has now submitted such testimonials to the legislature and hopes that the bill will be voted on in February 2014.

As she vows to continue her fight, Yoslyn, who drafted her country’s first maternity leave law—which was adopted in October 2009—admits that her work is not easy. “Sometimes I wonder too, where did and where am I getting all this energy from?” she asks. “Well, my answer: when you show peace and love, you are showing God to the world.”

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