By: Justin Pettit, a Human Rights Adviser (Acting) at the Commonwealth Secretariat
Samoa’s response to violence against women and girls can guide other countries
This blog is part of the Commonwealth’s ‘16 Days of Actions’ series, designed to showcase multi-disciplinary national solutions in addressing violence against women and girls. These proven solutions build on the collective experience of the 54 member countries – representing one-third of humanity – which can be replicated elsewhere to create a safer world for every woman and girl. Read the full series here.
Violence against women and girls is pervasive. The Pacific is not immune, with prevalence rates of violence against women and girls in most of the region’s countries much higher than the global average of 35 per cent.
Such violence takes several forms. It harms women and girls’ general well-being and impedes their full participation in society. Violence cripples families and adversely affects communities. The social and economic costs are enormous, from missed education to long-term impacts on physical and mental well-being, and strained judicial systems to lost productivity.
National human rights institutions play a vital role in combatting the evils of violence against women and girls. In Samoa, the Office of the Ombudsman initiated a national dialogue on the issue through its National Public Inquiry into Family Violence. The Commonwealth Secretariat supported the inquiry and its follow-up with financial and technical assistance. The Inquiry concluded in 2018, with its report made public that September.
Alarming levels of violence
The inquiry findings are stark. Almost nine in 10 Samoan women have experienced physical or emotional violence at the hands of family members, with six out of 10 experiencing intimate partner violence. One in five women has been raped. The Inquiry revealed 33 per cent of women who are raped contemplate suicide, while 13 per cent attempt suicide.
The economic impact of family violence costs Samoa up to £38 million each year, equivalent to seven per cent of the country’s gross domestic product or £317 for every Samoan aged 15 years or older.
Eighty-five per cent of inquiry survey respondents indicated that family violence is a priority issue that must be addressed.
Moving beyond conversation
The report did more than just start a national conversation on a grim topic; it also proposed 39 targeted recommendations to curb the violence women and girls face in their own homes. These recommendations are evidence-based, flowing directly from the experiences of those most affected. A number are straightforward and unsurprising:
- establish a Family Violence Prevention Office within government;
- train police and health services to recognise family violence and develop clear plans when attending to victims and perpetrators;
- provide universally accessible shelters to victims of family violence; toughen the ban on corporal punishment; and
- strengthen the legislative framework and develop a comprehensive monitoring and evaluation framework.
Crucially, the inquiry recognised that change to meaningfully end violence against women and girls required human rights to be placed with the specificities and unique characteristics of the national context. Thus, many recommendations pose uniquely Samoan solutions, and all recommendations are framed within the context of the Fa’asamoa, the Samoan way of life, which traditionally embraces inclusivity, respect, communication and peace.
The underlying principles of the Fa’asamoa are interlinked and interdependent, not unlike the underlying principles of human rights.
Among these ‘Samoan solutions’ was the recommendation to empower Village Fonos, or village councils, to play a role in bringing perpetrators of family violence to formal justice through establishing family safety committees, introducing bylaws to encourage reporting, and setting appropriate punishment for perpetrators.
Since the inquiry, 40 per cent of Village Fonos have taken decisions on domestic violence, and two villages have officially affirmed a zero-tolerance approach, with all forms of violence as punishable offences under village laws. The Office of the Ombudsman rolled out a Family Safety Committee pilot project earlier this year, a suggestion put forward by those who participated in the inquiry’s village consultations to change behaviour and mind-sets at the community level.
The new committees complement efforts of government and service providers, with activities such as regular visits to particularly vulnerable families and village cultural days to remind youths of Fa’asamoa values emphasising the importance of women and relationships.
A whole-of-society response
The inquiry’s impact has been profound, touching all levels of society. Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegao declared: “Enough is enough!” and called for “a whole of country approach to address the issue with more proactive leadership by […] the government”. Parliament, Village Fonos, faith leaders and individuals echoed his call and committed to change.
Although behavioural change can be a long haul, progress in Samoa is both steady and commendable, thanks in part to advocacy and awareness raising by the Office of the Ombudsman.
Human rights provide a framework, anchoring responses to entrenched issues like violence against women and girls. However, the solutions must be comprehensive, evidence-based and localised, tailored to the culture and traditions of the communities in which they will be implemented.
The Samoan experience with family violence illustrates how, with support from partners like the Commonwealth Secretariat, this can be effectively achieved.
More importantly, with Samoa we have a model and can build on what works to stop violence against women and girls everywhere.
The ‘16 Days of Actions’ blog series is part of the Commonwealth Says NO MORE campaign. Read the full series here, learn more about the Commonwealth’s work on ending violence against women and girls here – and join in the conversation on social media by using #CommonwealthSaysNOMORE.