As the equatorial breezes drifted over Kiribati, a flickering streetlamp barely illuminated the gloomy, potholed road while rats criss-crossed through the port area of Betio. “The Kore Koreas come here very late, maybe 3 AM or even later,” said a local man earlier in the day. He pointed towards an uninspiring concrete slab close to a docking ramp for small boats. By then, it was 4:35 AM and a nearby shadow of movement broke the stillness of the night as a group of women made their way towards the ocean.
They wore high heels and tight skirts carefully escorted by a crew of Korean fishermen. Like couples, they held each other tightly. An unmistakable veil of alcohol covered them as they made their way towards a passenger boat. Upon boarding, the engine roared to life. The stern pierced through the calm waters, anchoring itself beside a rather imposing fishing vessel set against the black canvas of night.
Kiribati, a string of 33 islands remains home to some of the richest oceanic fisheries on earth. The nation’s exclusive economic zone is comparable to the size of India. Its waters have long attracted foreign fishing fleets from Spain to South Korea. International fishing licensing fees account for 50 per cent of Kiribati’s total revenue and 25 per cent of its GDP. South Korean ships make up a majority of these, in some occasions accounting for 71 per cent of total fleets. Many of these anchor for months at a time off the coast of Kirbati’s capital, Tarawa. The arrival of these foreign fishing fleets have introduced a recent phenomenon of secret companionships at sea.
The nightly activities taking place on foreign vessels have come under heavy speculation by the local community. Known as ‘Kore Koreas’ to the locals, the women that board these vessels have gained a notorious reputation for allegedly being ‘sex workers’. The community consensus about these women makes the assumption that they are performing sexual acts for financial gain. This has caused them to lose their estimation within their communities, particularly that of Betio’s squatter settlements. “Those ‘Kore Koreas’ that come here late at night are prostitutes and they bring shame to our people by having sex with Korean men for money,” said a local port worker. This sentiment is consistent throughout the squatter communities in Betio. “I have never met one of the girls, but I feel sorry for their parents,” said a local woman.
These attitudes have been echoed across the Pacific to the South Korean government who have expressed their discontent towards the term “Kore Koreas” and its negative connotations. Locals are now beginning to dub the women colloquially as, “Ainen Matawa”, roughly translating to “easy to grab”. Contrary to these common assertions, according to the women involved, these assumptions are far from the truth.
Sporting a bright pink singlet and black sarong, a 30 year-old woman named Teatu Teunaea sat upon a weaved pandanus mat. Teatu often makes the nightly escapade to the boats along with others in her social circle. “I do not like it when we are called sex workers. We are not,” said Teatu. She explained that the women are never given money for sex and the ships are a part of an entertaining social scene. If sex should take place, it is a wanted and enjoyable activity, part of their self-professed party lifestyle. “Sometimes we are given food to take back to our families, but we never receive money,” she said.
These nightly activities are becoming a common choice for women in Kiribati. Most who seek these risky companionships do so due to the prevalence of domestic violence in Kiribati culture. Teatu’s appetite for partying and alcohol started in her early teens and led her to an active sex life. She says that once her virginity was taken, she was considered ‘tainted’ by Kiribati cultural standards. Her innocence was lost and men adopted an “anything goes” approach to her sexual availability. Teatu recounted the night she lost her virginity to her ex-boyfriend. “After he finished, he told five other men to come in and sleep with me,” said Teatu.
“I would get beaten all the time by him and his friends. Sometimes after I woke up from drinking, I would have cigarette burns all over my arms and legs,” she said.
After years of sexual and physical abuse, Teatu left her boyfriend and began to drink alcohol to excess. “I met other girls and groups in the nightclubs. They all went on the Korean boats,” she said. The “gangs” of women, as she calls them, virtually form a support group for each other. Many of them who come from abusive backgrounds, find sanctuary in boarding the boats. “We feel secure and protected with the Korean men. They never harm us,” she said. In many instances, Teatu claims the women are treated like “wives”.
Despite Teatu’s praise of Korean fishermen, the non-traditional courtships on the boats are culturally frowned upon. It has left these women open to discrimination by the greater community and even immediate family. Teatu spoke candidly of her family’s extreme measures that were used in an effort to remedy her actions. “My mother and father hated that I go on the boats. Once they chained me up for three weeks to stop me from leaving the house,” she said. Families of these women often reiterate that these actions are a disgrace to the family name.
Due to traditional Kirbati practices, locals prefer that women marry local men. “I was forced into marriage. I did not want to. They found him and made me have a child,” Teatu said. It is because of these cultural practices that some women decide to leave behind their traditions and head towards the fishing vessels. “I did not want to get married,” she said. Teatu wanted to divorce her husband and hatched a plan to get him drunk enough to sleep with another woman. “It worked,” she said. Extreme measures such as these of escaping Kiribati’s societal norms highlight the impact that these traditions demand on the expected behaviours of women.
Teatu now has 4 children, two of which are born to Korean men. One child was born to a Japanese man and another from her ex-husband. This ethnically diverse set of children now reside with her parents creating a controversial situation for her family and their community expectations. “My family do not like that the children have no fathers and that they all come from different men,” she said. Yet still to this day, she leaves the children in the care of her parents while she continues to drink and party with Korean men. Her addiction to this lifestyle seems to remain totally unabated despite her age and responsibilities to her children. “I don’t want to come home,” she said.
Contrary to this, there are families that are more accepting of what these women do. Tetira, a 67-year old Kiribati lady whose granddaughter is a frequent visitor to the boats knows first-hand of the plight of these women. “We can’t stop them from going on the ships, they will do it even if we say no,” she said.
Tetira’s granddaughter is a colleague of Teatu and the pair usually travel together as duo as well as with others. “If our granddaughter has already been with a man, why do we have to pretend and keep her at home like a virgin? Let her go,” said Tetira. Tetira has learned to accept the rising trend of these multi-racial courtships largely due to the Korean men’s efforts in keeping the women safe. She says that sometimes the Korean fishermen would bring food to her home as a gift as a token of their appreciation. “Other people do not like it, but when they realise that the girls are safe and respected, they will change their minds,” she said.
Due to the promiscuous lives that are led by these women it has raised concerns regarding unplanned pregnancy and STI infections. Teatu, is currently in a counselling program run by the non-for-profit, Kiribati Family Health Association (KHFA). At 30 years of age, she is only now learning about the risks associated with an active sex life. “I wish it was around when I first went out on the boats. Then maybe I would not have four children,” said Teatu.
The need for sexual health education has sparked the introduction of community outreach programs throughout Tarawa. Women such as Teatu are integral parts to the success of these initiatives. Community Program officer at KFHA, Abitara Tekeke, works closely with the community to inform them of sexual health risks. “The activities focus on the poor and marginalised communities that are unable to receive or too afraid to ask for help,” he said. However, due to a large portion of the population in Tarawa being economically disadvantaged, it is increasingly difficult for the programs to reach specific targets.
The programs provide condoms for use to all people free of charge. Women such as Teatu are taught about protection and prevention methods including condom usage. “I take female condoms on the boats now because many of the men do not want to wear condoms,” she said. However, important as these programs are, they tend to be reactive to an already existing problem and large barriers remain to providing an adequate means of education to the masses.
The barriers, which are steeped in cultural traditions, are proving problematic for sexual health in Kiribati. Home to a large Roman Catholic constituent, the conservative views regarding contraception have proved damaging to sexual health advocates. A doctor, who requested to be unnamed due to fear of backlash from the Church, explained the problems faced by the medical community. “The Catholic Church activity states that it is a sin to use condoms. People are afraid of that and the taboo really sticks,” he said.
Kiribati’s Catholic Bishop, Paul Eusebuis Mea Kaiuea, reiterated similar rhetoric. “I do not believe in family planning or the use of condoms. That is the churches view,” he said. While the Church advocates for abstinence outside of marriage, the implementation of this standard is usually not met by many in Kiribati. The high estimation of the Church and its traditions play a pivotal role in Kiribati’s attitudes towards sex and the nation’s struggle to accept sexual health advocacy.
As the fisheries industry accounts for roughly half of Kiribati’s national revenue it is unlikely that the foreign fleets will cease to dock on its shores. However, the underlying factors remain. If these risky relationships and its consequences are to be curtailed there must to be societal change within Kirbati to curb its domestic violence culture. This would require the nation at large to re-evaluate its own attitudes towards the treatment of women in society and the consequences of domestic abuse.
Conservative attitudes and traditionalist approaches to these issues including the lack of sexual health education has forced many women into dangerous situations. For this change to occur, governments, organisations and the community must work together to dispel its closely held cultural norms. While an alcohol fuelled nightly venture may sound like a more than risky endeavour, for women like Teatu, the alternative is much worse.