Rilanda Ralpho has spent the past year answering phone calls from people who are often seeking nothing more than a translator. On Thursdays, she attends women’s services at local churches armed with pamphlets and flyers, hoping to make a change in a community that she thinks has a major problem: “Marshallese don’t talk about sexual assault.”
“It’s not culture to talk about such bad topics, especially because there’s not even a word for ‘sexual assault,'” said Ralpho, 30, who is the first Marshallese advocate at the Northwest Arkansas Center for Sexual Assault.
The center is located in Springdale, where Pacific Islanders make up 6.4% of the population and foreign-born people make up 24.1%, according to census data.
Since starting the position last October, Ralpho has not received any calls from Marshallese people about sexual assault — something that she partially attributes to the nature of the assaults, she said.
Among reports of sexual abuse, 93% of juvenile victims knew the perpetrator, with 34% being family members and 59% being acquaintances, according to data compiled by the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN).
But among Marshallese people, it is rare for a girl to be assaulted by a complete stranger or an acquaintance, Ralpho said.
“It’s always a family that does the assault, like someone that you trust, that you grew up trusting,” Ralpho said. “An adult that would be there for you to help you ends up assaulting you.”
Julie Kinder, victim services coordinator at the NWA Center for Sexual Assault, said there is “quite the demand” for Marshallese advocates in Springdale.
“It’s difficult for any person who is a survivor of sexual assault to come forward, but for the Marshallese, it’s even harder,” Kinder said. “They don’t talk about sex, let alone sexual assault.”
Ralpho has always known she wants to serve her community, so when she saw a listing for a Marshallese advocate on Indeed, a job search website, she jumped on the opportunity, she said.
“That’s why my parents brought me here: so that I can be a great help,” Ralpho said. After Ralpho was born in 1989, her father moved from Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands, to Springdale to work at Tyson Foods, where 30% of the workforce is Marshallese, according to the Marshallese Educational Initiative.
“He called back home, he’s like, ‘There’s a place called Springdale, Arkansas, where you work at the factories and then you make a lot of money,’” Ralpho said.
Ralpho describes the Marshall Islands, where she lived from 1989-1995 and returned to in 1999 for a couple of months, as a place where children roam freely and without concern, unlike in the U.S. where they are confined to backyards or driveways for playtime. She remembers the climate — how the cool spring air stung her skin when she left the airport in Tulsa, Oklahoma, before taking the two-hour drive to Springdale. She remembers how boring the drive was to her at 6 years old.
Since Ralpho came to Springdale in 1995, she has seen the Marshallese population grow to its present 12,000 — something she traces by the number of Marshallese churches in a given year, from one in 1999 to more than 30 now. She was one of two Marshallese students in her kindergarten class.
“If she didn’t go to school, I didn’t go to school,” Ralpho said. “I didn’t know the language, so I was really scared to make friends.”
Ralpho said she always looked forward to weekends because that was the time she got to spend with other Marshallese kids at the first Marshallese church in NWA: Marshallese Assembly of God in Lowell, Arkansas. With both her parents being deacons, she found her home at church.
Now, she finds her work there, trying to start conversations with women who fear even mentioning sexual assault might alienate them from their families, Ralpho said.
“They just live by the Bible, so the man is the head of the household. Even if the woman works, the man is still the head of the household,” Ralpho said. “And what men say goes.”
Growing up mostly in Springdale, Ralpho heard the way Marshallese people talk about sexual assault and sexual violence, often blaming the victim for the clothes she was wearing or for the way she spoke. Ralpho didn’t find the courage to speak out, though, until she had a daughter of her own, she said.
“I don’t want her to grow up in a world that I grew up in,” Ralpho said. “I want her to grow up in a world where victims are believed and perpetrators are held accountable.”
The NWA Center for Sexual Assault will have a male advocate for Marshallese people starting Oct. 1, Kinder said.
“It’s just that secrecy that has created that need for someone in the community willing to speak out, that ‘Hey, this isn’t okay,’” Kinder said.
Kinder said she thinks Marshallese people worry that if they go to the center or even call, it might get back to their families that they spoke out, she said.
“They risk so much. They risk losing family, they risk losing, you know, everything to come forward, so they don’t,” Kinder said.
Now with two daughters, ages 8 and 10, Ralpho knows she’s made a difference by keeping them safe and educated about what is acceptable and what is not, teaching them to remember that certain parts of their bodies are off-limits to others, she said.
“It was different back in my days because parents back then were so old-fashioned and Marshallese-cultured,” Ralpho said. “Nowadays, parents are more Americanized but not to the fact that they openly talk about assault.”
While there is room for improvement in the new generation, especially when it comes to reporting to the police, Ralpho has hope that the issue will improve, though she knows it will be a slow process, she said.
“This is not Marshall Islands; this is Arkansas, and what we might get away with back home, we certainly can’t get away here,” Ralpho said.
The NWA Center for Sexual Assault offers advocacy services, performs forensic rape kit exams and offers counseling, support groups and a 24-hour crisis line, available at 800-794-4175.