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Kokan: Youthful Female Runaways in the Marshalls

By Dennis T.P. Keene

October 1992 (MC #08) Social Issues

The Project

This report presents data collected during a four-week period of research beginning from December 1984 to January 1985. The research addresses the perceived problem of youthful female runaways and the associated issues of promiscuity and pregnancy among the young. Majuro is the site of the research, though some material regarding Ebeye is also presented.

Research revealed that youthful runaways are a genuine problem on Majuro. Though the focus here is on girls, who are in certain ways more conspicuous, it is probable that more boys than girls are isolated from parental supervision. The report begins with a look at the scope and nature of the phenomenon. Some aspects of the life of a runaway are depicted. It then remains to outline some of the origins and causes of the phenomenon, to discuss the quality of that life, and to project the future of the runaway.

Police Contact

Examination of police juvenile records for Majuro over the last ten years revealed the following for females:

Year Total Offense

1975 6 0 runaways; 4 drunk/disorderly; 2 assaults
1976 12 1 runaway; 1 drinking; 1 curfew; 2 shoplifting;
2 malicious mischief (other offenses unclear)
1977 9 1 runaway; 7 curfew; 1 drinking
1978 8 4 runaways; 1 drinking; 2 fighting; 1 larceny
1979 5 3 runaways; 2 drinking; 1 larceny
1980 15 11 runaways; 2 drinking; 1 curfew
1981 18 12 runaways (3 repeat offenders); 3 drunk
1982 17 14 runaways; 3 disturbing the peace
1983 28 16 runaways; 2 drunk/disorderly; 1 larceny; 2 forgery;
7 violations of public law (indecent public behavior)
1984 16 12 runaway; 4 disorderly conduct; 2 trespass

These figures are very conservative according to police officers; i.e., they only represent a portion of police contact with juveniles. The figures agree with the opinions of those interviewed. Older informants believe that the problem of runaways is a new phenomenon in Marshallese society. All agree that it is a growing one, as indicated by an increase from zero to sixteen over a nine year period. The nature of other offenses (drinking/disorderly conduct, etc.) also suggests lack of parental supervision and estrangement from the family. Estimates of informants as to the number of runaways at the time of the research varied from under 20 to over 150. This is due in part to what was meant by "runaway." The smaller figure represents a highly visible group of girls and women who live independently from their families. The larger figure is an estimate of those who leave for shorter periods, perhaps two or three days.

According to police officers, when a girl runs away, some kind of romantic activity is always involved. It is also of interest that adult females appear on the police log as "runaways." These are single mothers who have left a child with its grandparents, who then seek the aid of police in requiring the mother to return and look after the child.

The Runaways

The smaller, more visible group ranges in age from 15 to early twenties with very few older. Around ten of them stay at the Filipino Camp not far from the new dock on Majuro. A similar sized group stays at Jable. Groups of girls have stayed at the home of at least one American in the past. One group lived in a cargo container until they were evicted some months ago. Others stay with boyfriends, sometimes ships. Some live in semi-independence, occasionally visiting their parents or other relatives to rest, shower, and eat; sometimes they bring their friends. A few seem genuinely to have no place to go and float from one place to another. Some have been seen to sleep in the open. Under the bridge was mentioned as one location. This last situation may be a matter of passing out or of having no place where they would be welcome due to the lateness of the hour or their intoxication.

Some of these girls and women drink; some are promiscuous; some take money for sex; some commit antisocial acts such as disrobing in public or crimes such as theft. Those who are most visible in these activities may be termed kokan. This is a Marshallese word which comes from the Japanese; it means to bargain or to sell, suggesting commercial sex. This continues to be the basic meaning of the word. It is also used in a more general way on Majuro to express disapproval of a woman's morals. It was used, for example, to address a girl who had run away with her cousin, her brother in Marshallese kinship terminology. It may be used in reference to a promiscuous woman even though no money is involved. It is also used to refer to females who drink in public or are regularly seen in certain bars.

The term kokan is a harsh one. One Marshallese woman said it connotes evil, sin, separation from the community, "filth." Similarly, male informants said that it meant "not clean," and several indicated strong feelings of disapproval if not revulsion by their demeanor when discussing this topic.

The Life

The most visible of the labeled groups seem to be isolated from the community, more than from their families. One informant asserted that they are seen less often in daylight public settings than one would expect, and that when they do so appear, something makes them recognizable. The informant seemed to mean something about their manner, embarrassment and perhaps some defiance. Dress is also an important identifier; members of the labeled groups are more likely, for example, to wear jeans than are most women. They are unwilling to go to public offices. Several tried to stow away on a boat to Ebeye but were ejected and told they needed government travel documents. They delayed going to the appropriate office for some time. Finally they went drunk and were refused.

In contrast to their isolation from the community is their close, club-like association with each other. In addition to living together, they socialize and work in each other's company. They provide mutual support. Much of their income is spent on friends, and they urge outsiders to buy things for their associates as well as themselves. After one was brutally mutilated, the others visited her in the hospital. Besides dress and demeanor, girls who defy the expectations of their society by drinking or promiscuity may mark themselves with burns, scars, or tattoos on hand, arm, or leg. "A," the eldest active member of the group, seemed to confirm that these scars were marks of group membership, but this was never established conclusively.

Also club-like is an internal rank system. Informants believe that arrangements to provide social or health services to group members should make use of the leaders. There was, however, some disagreement about who the leaders are. Two informants thought A was the leader. Another member, "B," referred to her as "that crazy one"; the expression was not used with contempt, but it conveyed a certain lack of respect inappropriate for one said to be a leader. B, older at 21 and more robust than most in her group, seems to occupy a position of leadership. She has been seen to grab two girls, one by the hair and the other by the arm, and walk both across the floor of the bar where they most frequently congregate and push them out the door. Their acquiescence seemed due as much to the force of her personality as to physical strength. The incident seemed clearly to be a measured, considered, deliberate act of dominance rather than one of the spontaneous fights (usually over men) that break out regularly.

Except for their relations with each other, many of these girls have most of their social contacts with outsiders. Some go to the docks when ships or Japanese fishing boats arrive. Others go in groups to three well known bars. Beer and cigarettes are bought for the girls in whom the outsiders take an interest and for their friends. They dance. When sober there is shyness and embarrassment on the part of some. As time passes, this attitude is replaced by a more demanding one. Food may be requested, but this seems not to be a high priority.

At some point sex is usually expected by the outsiders. Just as not all of the girls drink, not all are promiscuous. If sex takes place, there must be a social element. The girl's mood and her assessment of the outsider may have at least as much to do with whether sex will take place as the financial gain to be realized. This puts a human face on the encounter, distinguishing it from the purely commercial transactions of prostitution as seen in Asia and the West. This is not to say that money never changes hands or that something difficult to distinguish from prostitution never occurs. (The figure $20 was mentioned by several informants). Behavior varies from individual to individual and encounter to encounter, and some are undoubtedly more mercenary and predatory than others.

A number of outcomes are possible at this point. There may be no sex: the girl's interest may be limited to socializing and drinking. She may lose her nerve; novices, especially, may fear parental discipline and want to go home. Demands for favors or for cash may prevent the encounter from being consummated. Men report feelings of impatience, irritation, anger, and frustration, usually intensified by drink. If sex does occur, money may be taken after the man falls asleep. This is a frequently reported practice. It may be that a girl too shy to ask for money takes it when the opportunity arises.

Informants agree that all the problems listed for Majuro are, if anything, worse on Ebeye. "Female gangs" are mentioned by the anthopologist Bill Alexander: "Sex for money was related to membership in these groups. There were over forty girls engaged in this practice, often on Kwajelein." One Marshallese woman said parental complicity is more likely to be involved in sex for money on Ebeye than on Majuro. Americans familiar with Ebeye asserted that that prostitution begins at an earlier age there and confirmed Alexander's observation that it is part of a pattern of deviant behaviors including alcohol abuse, theft, fighting, and suicide.

Physical Abuse

Such situations may give rise to violence. Stories are told of girls being thrown off ships or being chased from one to another. One woman was mutilated genitally with near fatal results. (Drunk at the time, she says she cannot identify her assailant). An informant told of a serious beating given a woman at a waterfront bar by a Samoan sailor. No one tried to protect her. The same informant reported another episode in which several Marshallese men tried to defend some women and were badly beaten for their efforts. Other instances of violence against women were reported, some off the record, others vague. Many of these take place late at night and usually associated with drinking.

Girls and women labeled as kokan are also in danger from Marshallese. Their behavior is disapproved, and they are vulnerable. One hears of beatings and stoning by young men and boys. Many of the injuries may be regarded as punishment for violating the norms of society. Anthropologists have noted that what appears to be random gang violence is in many societies guided by social mores and amounts to the carrying out of an informal judgment of the community. Beatings, some resulting in loss of teeth, scars, and other permanent injuries, are also administered as punishment by relatives, husbands, and boyfriends. Punishment for promiscuity, sometimes compounded by rage and jealousy, is the motivation suggested by informants.

Origins and Causes

Explanations for the phenomenon of youthful female runaways vary from the general to the specific, and many are interrelated. The most general to be offered by respondents is "the breakdown of traditional society." The substitution of wage work and a cash economy for subsistence fishing/gardening and reciprocity undermines values such as sharing and hospitality. Constant change weakens respect for the elderly, for the long accumulation of experience no longer guarantees the most relevant knowledge for the problems at hand. The young shift from being economic assets to being economic liabilities. Group tasks are individualized. Individual independence emerges as an alternative to group interdependence and solidarity.

The rapid growth and concentration of population is a major source of social and cultural disruption, and it exacerbates the disruptive effects of other changes. Large families live in small homes. Each child gets less attention than he might in a smaller family. Rapid population growth creates a high "dependency ratio," i.e., too few must support too many. Over half of all Marshallese are under fifteen years of age. According to the 1982 Population Seminar Report, there are too many children to be "adequately taken care of, supervised, and taught to be responsible." Increasing instances of child abuse, malnutrition, and deviant social behavior result. The seminar also noted a rapid growth in the number of unwed mothers.

Crowding was mentioned frequently as a cause for juveniles leaving home. People need a certain amount of physical space to function adequately. Overcrowding of any population of organisms is associated with social and physical pathology. The amount of crowding which can be tolerated varies from one society to another, but this tolerance results from the gradual evolution of institutions in adaptive response to steady increases in population. It is highly unlikely that Marshallese populations were ever near being as densely concentrated as they are now on Ebeye and Majuro. It would be unreasonable to expect natural social evolution to generate institutions to cope with the new stresses of overpopulation in the few decades in which the population growth has occurred.

Inadequate parental supervision was mentioned by many in connection with runaways and what might be called quasi-runaways. ("Outlaws" are teenagers who live outside of parental supervision, but who are not necessarily labeled as promiscuous.) As mentioned earlier the amount of time and attention available for each child decreases in proportion to the number of children. Children are more likely to feel ignored and unwanted. The expression "kang budget" was mentioned by one informant and its use confirmed by others. This means to "eat" the family's budget, and it may express parents' frustration at having to support too many dependents. It draws attention to the adolescent's inability to make an economic contribution to the family and contributes to feelings of low self esteem.

Informants agree that most female runaways who have been labelled as promiscuous are outer islanders. Police records seem to confirm informants' observations, but conclusive statistics were not obtainable. The term "outer islander" is somewhat ambiguous. For one thing, most residents of urban Majuro have outer island origins. Outer islander may mean one born away from urban Majuro or Ebeye and raised in an urban area or it may mean one who arrives in an urban area in adolescence. Despite some ambiguity, there seems to be general agreement that outer islanders are more likely to become kokan. Several reasons were offered to explain this. For one thing, the outer islander who arrives in urban Majuro for school or work may live with distant relatives with whom there is less sense of mutual obligation, respect, love. The outer islander, whether a recent arrival living with distant relatives or one who arrived in childhood with her parents, is likely to have less money than a member of an established urban family. It was also mentioned that the outer islander may be more struck by the entertainment attractions of urban life. It was also suggested by one informant that town girls may be more discreet in their social adventures and less likely to bring about a breech between themselves and their families.

The shift from a subsistence to a cash economy is a centrally important aspect of change through culture contact. Poverty was offered as an explanation for entering into the life of a kokan. A few informants mentioned instances of families encouraging daughters to engage in sex for income to the family. Others denied this. It appears that the practice does take place, but that it is relatively rare on Majuro, less rare on Ebeye. When a girl from a poor family sees girls who have nicer clothes and other consumer items and sees no realistic way to obtain these things other than through the life of the kokan. Lack of education also enters in. Although a few kokan were doing well in school when they dropped out, most were not. Thus they have little in the way of credentials for an ordinary job.

Release from customary limitations on behavior was also given as a reason why girls leave home. The traditional ideal is for a young girl to stay home, help her mother, and wait for a suitor. The "excellent" girl is quiet and self-effacing. Many parents are said to be authoritarian. These traditional values, especially authoritarian discipline were if anything reinforced by the Japanese colonial presence. They run counter, however, to American values of individual independence and assertiveness. (These are communicated in various ways; one respondent mentioned movies, e.g., one about a girl gang, independent and isolated from the community and its standards, loyal only to the other members of the group). Some modern girls are impatient. They are unwilling to wait for affection, attention, and a measure of independence. It seems that many of those who leave their families are more independent than most. It is said that kokan were the first Marshallese women to have sports teams and among the first to drive cars and have jobs. Several informants volunteered the observation that former kokan are hard working, energetic, and expectably less shy in dealing with the public.

Also relevant to conflict between parents and children is the use of drugs. Alcohol, like money, was unknown to the Marshall islands prior to contact with the outside world. One of the ways Marshallese society has adapted to the introduction of drugs is an expectation that women will not use them. Exceptions are made, but it is fair to say that for a woman to use either alcohol or tobacco, her reputation must be high and secure, and even then discretion is necessary. The opportunity to taste these forbidden fruits is part of the appeal of the life of a kokan. Some informants feel that dependence on alcohol helps to perpetuate that life. The researcher's observations support that view. One older kokan is unquestionably an alcoholic, and a few of the younger ones seem strongly habituated if not addicted to alcohol (usually consumed in the form of beer.) The same may be said of tobacco. Other drugs are used much less frequently, most notably marijuana. Despite the fact that marijuana is far less addictive and damaging to health than either alcohol or nicotine, it is not totally benign. Two informants believe that the girls they have observed are more disoriented by cannabis intoxication than by alcohol, perhaps due to relative unfamiliarity with it. Also one kokan told the researcher that she was expelled from high school for smoking marijuana in the girl's bathroom.

The custom of the favorite child (utiejtata) was also cited as a contributing factor in children leaving their families. Though not present in all families, the favorite child is a recognized institution. One girl felt that she was "treated like a slave" while her sister "was treated like a queen." She felt deprived of attention, recognition, possessions, and was resentful. One informant said girls may leave home, and enter into a socially disapproved life to hurt the parents. Also in the realm of intergenerational conflict is the customary punishment of cutting a girl's hair for presumed sexual misconduct. Quantification was not feasible, but everyone the researcher talked to about this knew of at least a few examples. Typically, a girl might stay out overnight for the first time, return home to a scolding and/or beating, go to sleep, and wake up to discover that her hair has been cut off. In one instance, the girl immediately wrapped a towel around her head, took a taxi to a place where kokan congregate, stiffed the driver for the fare, and never came home. One woman said her daughter quit high school when the father cut her hair.

Informants agreed that this is a humiliating punishment. A Marshallese woman's hair is "a thing of beauty and value," the "pride and beauty of a woman." The punishment may be administered by mother, father, mother's brother or husband. One explanation offered was restriction. The newly shorn person would be two embarrassed to leave home. If this is the primary purpose, the custom is counter-productive, for it drives the punished one away rather than keeping her home. The origin of the custom is unclear. The Japanese shaved or cut people's hair as a punishment and this may be the source. Elderly informants believed that the practice was invented by Marshallese: prior to the arrival of Christian missionaries, death was the punishment for adultery with the husband of a female chief; after capital punishment was abolished, the offending woman's hair was cut.

In addition to these causes or precipitating events, there is the opportunity to leave. There is precedent. There is a visible group of girls and women whom the runaway may join. They may find shelter at the Filipino camp. Some Americans have opened their homes to groups of these girls. (The price, if any, for this hospitality was not determined). Some people say the problem is caused or made worse by outsiders who harbor the kokan. Finally, the increasing number of foreign ships and boats provide a clientele.

Quality of Life

What is the quality of the lives of those who have left their own families without starting new ones? On the positive side their seems to be a sense of camaraderie. Members of the groups have a certain loyalty to each other, as evidenced by some of the behavior mentioned earlier (exhorting men to buy things and do favors for their friends, visiting one of their number in the hospital, etc). The life brings some attention, money, the pleasures of alcohol and tobacco, independence, and the opportunity to seek actively a lover or spouse.

In one episode, a group of Dutch sailors arrived at the Rainbow Club. They bought drinks for the half dozen or so girls who were there. The sailors danced wildly with the girls, and a few did some sort of jig or shanty with each other. After more drinking it was off to the ship. There was a feeling of adventure walking across an unsteady gangplank. Once on board the engine hummed and vibrated giving a sense of excitement, freedom, mobility. The ship was clean and it was pleasant to drink cold beer on the fantail. Sex, money, and such conveniences as warm showers awaited in the cabins below. The girls, age 17 to 21, were seasoned and appeared confident.

Some self-identified kokan say they enjoy the life and that they wish to continue it indefinitely. In some cases it seems reasonable to take these statements at face value. In others there seems to be an air of bravado growing out of a feeling that labeling is permanent and there are no alternatives. Some said they would like to leave the life and find an ordinary job or husband.

On the negative side, there is isolation from the community and estrangement from the family. Camaraderie is paralleled by fights over men and internecine struggles for power or status. The drinking is enjoyed by some. Others seem only saddened and disoriented by alcohol. Two individuals in particular, one 17 and the other over 30, seem to be alcoholics. Drinking also seems to be necessary to overcome the reserved, even shy, deportment normally expected of girls. Fortified by alcohol, it is possible to approach men, to draw attention to oneself, and finally to violate standards of behavior in more blatent ways. All this leads to police contact or, worse, renders them vulnerable to physical abuse by alien or Marshallese men. At the time of the research four kokan were said to be pregnant (it is safe to say that these pregnancies are genuinely unwanted) and at least one had venereal disease.

Life Trajectory

What are the possible outcomes of this life? For those who are only sporadically involved, and who manage to avoid VD, pregnancy, and permanent labeling, life opportunities are relatively unaffected. One respondent commented that the longer a woman stays in the life, the more difficult it is to get out of it. He stressed dependence on alcohol as a factor in perpetuating the kokan life style. This seems reasonable, though older kokan (20 and over) appeared more eager to get out of the life, perhaps by finding a husband. One expressed willingness to give up smoking and drinking if that were necessary.

Respondents agreed that acceptance by the community and family was possible, but they varied in their opinions as to how complete acceptance would be and how long it would take. There was a general belief that a firm commitment would have to be made by the ex-kokan. This might be validated by participation in church affairs, perhaps the formal admission of wrongdoing which is a recognized custom in some of the churches.

Examination of police juvenile records over a ten-year period yielded names of a number of previously labeled women. A police officer, familiar with many of them, described their present situation. Given the constraints of privacy and time, it was not possible to trace a sufficient number to warrant presentation of quantitative data. The procedure did reveal, along with other interviews, that many were married (to Marshallese as well as to Filipinos and Americans), several were working at ordinary jobs, some were still "running around," and a few had gone to Ebeye. At least one has dropped out of sight after being disfigured by a beating. The current and even former status of several remains unknown.

Formal marriage seems to have been the surest avenue out of the disapproved life.



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