APIA, Samoa – “Today will be different, I just know it.” These were the words Rita* uttered as she prepared to leave Campus of Hope, the domestic violence shelter that had been her sanctuary for the past three months. After suffering physical and emotional abuse throughout her 13-year marriage, the 51-year-old mother of nine had sought refuge at Campus of Hope as a last resort.
“Don't be afraid to take that step to seek help. You will take courage when you look into the eyes of your children” - Rita*, SVSG client and violence survivor
The violence had come to a head one night during the COVID-19 lockdown, when Rita’s husband began swearing at her and threatened to beat her. Rita fled next door to her sister-in-law's house, where her niece told her about ads she’d seen on social media for Spotlight Initiative-supported helplines for women experiencing violence. Samoa Victims Support Group (SVSG), who run the help line, immediately responded to Rita’s call and offered her a space at SVSG’s Campus of Hope, where she also received counselling. Rita’s husband was taken into police custody and SVSG filed a protection order on Rita’s behalf, as well as supporting her through the legal process.
“I am so glad I sought refuge with SVSG when I did,” says Rita. “They not only protected me, they also facilitated counselling for my husband and me which has led to the change that I have seen in him and in our relationship.”
During her time at the shelter, Rita struggled with being separated from her children but remained determined to create a better future for herself and her family. She says she'd encourage other women experiencing violence to do the same.
“Don't be afraid to take that step to seek help,” she says. “You will take courage when you look into the eyes of your children.”
After leaving Campus of Hope, Rita and her children initially moved in with Rita’s family while her husband underwent counselling for anger management and alcohol addiction through the SVSG Men Against Violence Programme. His counselling continues, and he is sometimes accompanied to sessions by Rita. Rita says her speaking out motivated him to get help and has made him a better husband and father. Given the positive shift, Rita has moved back in with him though she continues to check in regularly with SVSG.
Rita often returns to the shelter, but these days it's for a very different reason - she brings baskets of coconuts from her family plantation to help feed the women and children at Campus of Hope. It’s her way of giving back to those who helped her during her darkest moments.
"Promoting the services of the 24/7 helpline, online counselling and access to help via social platforms sent a message loud and clear: help is not on shut down” - Siliniu Lina Chang, President of SVSG
Spotlight Initiative in Samoa
Four million US dollars have been allocated through the EU-UN Spotlight Initiative to end violence against women and girls in Samoa. This includes support to develop legislation and policies to eliminate violence against women, and to strengthen national and sub-national institutions in responding to the needs of victims and survivors.
“We are grateful for the timely partnership between SVSG and UNDP through the Spotlight Initiative,” says Siliniu Lina Chang, President of SVSG. “It allowed a virtual connection to be widely established in promoting the services of the 24/7 helpline, online counselling and access to help via social platforms. The message was loud and clear: help is not on shut down.”
During the first six weeks of lockdown, SVSG responded to 415 calls through the helpline, with 46 distress calls resulting in police intervention to stop domestic violence in the home. Seventeen cases went to the courts for interim protection orders, and 42 cases of violence against women and children resulted in care from the SVSG shelter.
To respond to the spike in violence during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Initiative has programmed US$20,000 to support SVSG as a frontline civil society organization. It is essential that gender-based violence support services remain available and accessible to women, children and at-risk groups at all times, including during the country’s state of emergency.
By Laufa Lesa and Louisa Apelu. Lead photo: SVSG counsellor speaks with some children at the shelter. UNDP/Laufa Lesa.
*Name has been changed to protect privacy.