“My favourite story is Cinderella,” Melesays at the Samoa Victims Support Group (SVSG) in Apia, capital of the Pacific island country. She is 16 years old but has already lived a life that no one should.
When Mele was just 13 years old, her father began to sexually abuse her. Confused and scared, she confided in her mother. To her dismay, her mother didn’t believe her, leaving her without hope. At her lowest point, Mele considered suicide.
The word resilience does not have a direct translation in the Samoan language but this is what Mele showed when she built up the courage to approach another trusted adult, a priest, to tell him what was happening. Thankfully his response was very different. He immediately contacted staff at SVSG who placed Mele in a secure shelter, where she has remained for the past three years.
What is most impressive about Mele is her ability to forgive her parents (her father is now in jail) and her commitment to help other children deal with similar situations. “I am grateful to be safe and secure and I want to encourage other children never to give up, because someone will listen,” she says.
Breaking the culture of silence
Violence against women and children is commonplace across the South Pacific. In Samoa, 46 percent of girls and women aged 15-49 who have been in a relationship have experienced physical and/or sexual violence by their partner. 62 per cent of women have experienced physical violence by a non-partner and 11 percent have experienced sexual violence by a non-partner.
Violence against children can take many forms, including physical, sexual, emotional and verbal abuse.It may also involve neglect or deprivation and is typically perpetrated by those entrusted with children’s care: parents or family members, teachers and community members. There is clear evidence that violence can affect children’s physical, psychological, social and emotional well-being.
One of the most concerning elements related to violence against children is the silence which it breeds. Reporting on incidents of violence is minimal in Samoa. Sometimes people don’t speak up because they believe violence is socially acceptable. In other cases, it is because of the shame and stigma associated with survivors of sexual or physical abuse.
Child rights advocates in Samoa are tackling these practices and perceptions. They argue that religion or cultural beliefs are not a justification for causing harm to a child.
One such advocate is Justice Vui Clarence J.Nelson is also a child rights advocate. “As a judge, you often see the worst end of the spectrum and the grave impact violence can have on individuals, especially children,” he says. Too often, children from disruptive and dysfunctional families fall through the cracks and often become both a survivor and perpetrator of violence. The establishment of the Olomanu Juvenile Centre was an important move in trying to give young offenders a second chance at a better life.”
The Samoa Victims Support Group (SVSG), which is supported by UNICEF, also advocates for children’s rights. SVSG is a volunteer organisation founded in 2005 with the aim of creating a safe space for victims of violence.
As well as the main shelter, which offers comprehensive care services, SVSG has expanded its support services to include a phone helpline, counselling, youth employment and education programmes. It provides assistance with legal processes, runs a men’s advocacy groups and has a growing network at the village level. “It wasn’t easy at first because nobody wanted to talk about violence,” SVSG President Siliniu Lina Chang says. “But the more we keep hiding it, the worse it gets.”
With so many shared values and cultural patterns, Pacific Island nations pride themselves on working closely together to address common issues, otherwise known as South-South cooperation.
Lessons and skills have been shared in many areas but this is especially true in the case of stemming the tide of violence against children and strengthening child protection systems.
One such initiative is The Pacific Prevention of Domestic Violence Programme (PPDVP), a joint initiative of New Zealand Aid Programme, New Zealand Police, and the Pacific Islands Chiefs of Police organisation. The programme focuses on establishing domestic violence units as part of police services in several Pacific countries, and developing their skills.
Kiribati, Fiji and Samoa have all taken part. The improved visibility of domestic violence issues has helped instigate a shift in cultural norms and reinforced the message that domestic violence is a criminal offence and will not be tolerated.
Kiribati’s Deputy Police Commissioner Eeri Aritiera notes that the programme has been a positive way to encourage attitude shifts even within the police service, “’It’s none of my business’ is not an ok attitude – we are no longer observers but need to be agents of change.”
The South Pacific Council of Youth and Children’s Courts is another successful example of inter-Pacific knowledge and skills sharing. Youth justice is a new area for many of these countries. The council brings together youth and children’s court judges once a year for workshops on lessons learned and legislative successes.
The Samoa Victims Support Group’s success in Samoa has led to an expansion of its operation to New Zealand, Australia and soon Hawaii, providing culturally appropriate services to the Pacific islands diaspora. Visitors to these centres are not only Samoan but come from across the Pacific region. By sharing information between the centres, SVSG has been able to refine its programmes based on shared experiences and practices.
A chance to be great
Ruta, 19, is dressed in her chef’s uniform. She speaks with pride about being the only female graduate of her culinary training course, which she joined via SVSG’s youth employment programme.
Ruta came to SVSG aged 16 after being sexually abused and violently threatened by her uncle. Soon afterwards, she learned that her mother had been raped by her own father (Ruta’s grandfather) and fallen pregnant with Ruta. These experiences shattered Ruta’s confidence, her sense of identity and her ability to trust adults. In finding her passion for cooking, however, Ruta has been able to start regaining these lost abilities and begin to rebuild her self-belief.
“I have never returned to my home but I am stronger now and I have found support through my new colleagues who feel like family,” Ruta says.
Samoa has made notable progress instrengthening child protection systems and upholding children’s rights. It has established a Youth Justice Court, passed a Young Offenders Act, and established a juvenile centre. More progress in expected with the child protection and safety bill and the sex offenders’ bill, both of which are currently being reviewed by Parliament.
For the tide of violence to turn in Samoa, both prevention and response measures are needed. This will ensure that the country’s children can grow up in a world free from fear, pain and harm.
For more stories about South-South Cooperation, and to learn about the upcoming ‘Billion Brains’ meeting in Malaysia, visit: http://billion-brains.org/
*Names of survivors of violence have been changed to protect their identity.
Laura Gibbons is a Communication Specialist with UNICEF Pacific Islands