At YWCA, we imagine a world without violence. Unfortunately, that is not our current reality. Every 90 seconds a woman in the United States is sexually assaulted, and only half of domestic violence incidents are reported to the police.
Research has shown that violence transcends all boundaries, affecting women across social, economic, cultural, and family backgrounds. Gender-based violence occurs among all races and ethnicities – unfortunately at greater rates for women of color.
Hawaii is the only majority Asian-American, Pacific Islander state in the U.S., and has the highest Pacific Islander and Native Hawaiian population in the country at 27.5% of the state’s population.
Beyond the iconic tourist imagery of aloha shirts and Waikiki beach, the Hawaiian Islands are home to tremendous ethnic, linguistic and cultural diversity. These unique factors can make the work of reporting and addressing gender-based violence more complicated, as there is no “one size fits all” approach. While each island shares elements of being geographically remote with people living in poverty next to people of great wealth, each island has vastly different community needs.
The state of Hawaii has three YWCA associations located on the islands of Kauai, Oahu and Hawaii. I spoke with each of the association CEOs to see how they are working to prevent violence and support survivors in their communities.
In what ways does your association address violence against women?
Noriko Namiki, CEO YWCA Oahu: Women participating in our economic advancement programs come from all walks of life, and a large percentage of them have experienced domestic violence or some form of violence coupled with other traumatic life events, including sexual assaults and incarceration. By the time they come to our programs, these women are ready and wanting to move on with their lives by becoming self-sufficient. Our Dress for Success program helps boost their confidence so that they can believe in themselves again and achieve their life goals, including securing and maintaining employment. They will learn to rely on no one but themselves. Many women who move to our transitional housing facility Fernhurst from the Women’s Community Correctional Center also share similar experiences. Our programs become a critical component of getting them back on their feet and reestablishing their lives after incarceration.
Kathleen McGilvray, CEO YWCA Hawaii Island: Breaking the cycle of violence and addressing childhood trauma, as our programs do, is the beginning of healing as a community. Whether it is through our 24/7 Sex Assault Support Services and recovery program, our Healthy Families Hawaii Island program, or our Developmental Preschool, we have seen that work with families in the early stages of life makes a tremendous difference. We assist individuals and families to heal the pain of sexual assault during a time of unimaginable trauma. We provide crisis counseling and therapy no matter when someone comes to us, as well as immediate forensic evidence collecting.
Renae Hamilton-Cambeilh, CEO YWCA Kauai: On Kauai we are the only providers of 24-hour crisis services for domestic violence and sex assault, and provide the only Family Violence Shelter. We approach our work of ending domestic and sexual violence in three ways: (1) victim/survivor support, (2) treatment for batterers and sex offenders and (3) prevention education. Our comprehensive approach addresses this violence from every angle. We believe that providing clinical treatment for batterers and offenders is crucial to leading violence free lives. Our Prevention Education efforts are meant to inform youth and adults and prevent future abuse from occurring.
Has COVID-19 increased the number of violence cases you work with in your community?
KM: Hawaii Island has been recovering from lava flows and hurricanes in the last few years, and this year we are coping with COVID. The pandemic has increased isolation and challenges in working with the hardest families to serve. Housing challenges have been exacerbated with a rise in unemployment for families. Children are affected by uncertainty, and we see a greater need for stability, mental health, and family support. We have seen an increase in the number of families we serve with temporary restraining orders against one or both parents of preschool aged children. This is an incredibly isolating time. One or more parents have lost jobs, and their contact with extended family has been disrupted.
RHC: COVID has definitely increased the risk of violence and assault in our community. Home is not always a safe place. Combined with being on a rural island, victims may believe they are trapped and have no access to the resources.
What kinds of situations have you seen in your work with children?
KM: I am amazed by the resiliency of people who have experienced trauma, and how protective factors can make such a difference in the lives of women and children. At our developmental preschool, we see how childhood traumas and toxic stress can change a child’s development. Our programs help to instill a love of learning for hundreds of preschool children so their parents can work. We support family bonding with their newborn in their first 3 years of life for the best foundation for their family. The earlier we can work with the children experiencing trauma, the more beneficial for their adult development. We do all this work with a trauma-informed lens, culturally appropriate framework, and maximum inclusion.
RHC: Many of us working with child sexual abuse fear an increase in reported abuse once students return to a school where they have opportunities to tell other trusted adults.
What are some of the unique challenges your association faces regarding violence against women?
KM: Like other rural areas, we are a tight knit community with lots of rich connections. This can make it even more challenging to come forward against a perpetrator who is a family friend, or to talk about something that a survivor feels ashamed about. People have preconceived notions and think that child abuse or sex assault happens to other people. It’s not true, and sometimes it is a barrier to asking for help.
NN: Not every survivor tells her story, and we need to pay attention to what is not spoken. We don’t need to probe but will be mindful about what a woman wants to share or chooses not to share and respect her boundaries. Some women may not even realize that what they have gone through was violence as they were desensitized in an abusive environment. We will need to be patient with our work by addressing their needs and helping them become independent so that they can see their potential and how they can live – a life without violence. We will need not to make choices for them but help them make healthy and safe choices and be there for them. This type of work takes time and cannot be done in a single session or two. During the pandemic crisis, assessment of their needs and living situation has become a bit of a challenge sometimes as we cannot have direct face-to-face interactions with our clients. Zoom and virtual sessions may not necessarily show the full picture of how a woman is living. This is why we will need to pay extra attention to what is not said and what cannot be seen to assess her needs.
At YWCA, we must continue to imagine a world without violence. Whether our communities are big or small, our programs are making a difference. We know that the people we serve are resilient and their lives are not defined only by violence. Our collective hope is that these challenges will be behind them soon.