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Samoa makes human rights history with inquiry into family violence

30 November 2018
A blog written by Loukinikini Vili, Director of Human Rights, Ombudsman and National Human Rights Institution, Samoa.

Samoa’s National Human Rights Institution (NHRI) was established in 2013. It is fully compliant with the Paris Principles and is thus an ‘A’ accredited NHRI, the only ‘A’ accredited institution among the Commonwealth Pacific island states. With a mandate to protect and promote human rights in Samoa, one of its functions is to inquire into widespread, systemic or entrenched situations or practices that violate human rights. In 2014 we identified family violence as the most pressing violation of human rights in Samoa through an analysis of existing systemic human rights issues to determine priority areas of work. The analysis also showed that the best approach for such a complex systemic human rights issue would be a National Public Inquiry. The Ombudsman then chose to hold a National Inquiry as its first step in tackling the issue. A national inquiry enables a broad human rights approach and examination of a large and complex situation where the general public is invited to participate. It has both fact-finding and educational roles. This is the first such Inquiry to be held in Samoa or across the Pacific Islands of the Commonwealth.

For the purposes of the Inquiry, family violence was taken to mean any form of violence that a person experiences from another family member in a typical Samoan home, be it a nuclear or an extended communal unit. It encompasses emotional/physiological, physical, sexual and economic violence, and also includes “any other controlling or abusive behaviour where such conduct harms or may cause imminent harm to the safety, health or wellbeing of a person.”

A Commission made up of two men and two women plus the Ombudsman as Chairperson spearheaded the Inquiry on behalf of the NHRI. Their role was to hear the evidence, formulate findings for the report and draw up recommendations. Evidence for the Inquiry was collected through research, stakeholder consultations, village consultations, public and private hearings, and written submissions. We received evidence, testimony and submissions from varied stakeholders including NGOs, Government ministries, development partners, the media, survivors, perpetrators, service providers, Government officials, matais, academics, lawyers, international agencies and other interested parties.

Lack of financial resources was the first challenge we had to tackle. We needed to secure the interest and support of enough donor partners for this ambitious project to get off the ground and to achieve its aims. Our discussions with the Human Rights Unit of the Commonwealth Secretariat was very positive as their approach was that we were embarking on model and pioneering work in a small state focussed on a human rights challenge which was spread across the Pacific. We are grateful for the financial as well as technical expertise we have received from the team. Their partnership approach was not limited to the inquiry and the completion of the inquiry report – their support was pledged for the full journey inclusive of post-report follow-up; engagement with various stakeholders to whom recommendations were made; as well as monitoring, markers of impact and the evaluation thereof.  One significant aspect of our partnership was the cost-effective way in which we engaged. It is expensive to travel to Samoa, however we kept our partnership alive through Skype calls, emails and meetings at other fora where both of us were present, such as meetings of the Commonwealth Forum of National Human Rights Institutions.

Most importantly this Inquiry would not have been possible without the bravery of the many survivors of family violence who spoke with us and shared their stories. They did so in the hope that their coming forward would lessen the likelihood of others suffering in the future. It was recognized from the outset that obtaining the evidence of witnesses was going to be challenging. This was especially so in the cases of those still in violent relationships where potential for further harm would be high. Financial assistance from partners such as the Commonwealth Secretariat was invaluable in putting in place robust strategies to encourage people to participate with confidence that they would be safe.

We were anxious for the Inquiry in its processes to abide by the do no harm principle and to avoid the possibility of any further harm being caused to survivors. We consulted with family violence experts, survivors and perpetrators in formulating an approach which included both public and private hearings for vulnerable witnesses. Networking and partnership played a critical role in the process. We worked with Government service providers, including the Domestic Violence Unit of the Ministry of Police, and NGOs working in the family violence sector. The Office consulted with family violence experts, survivors and perpetrators in developing an approach to the public hearings to ensure no further harm to survivors was caused. In some cases, it was not possible to hear vulnerable witnesses in public without risking further harm so closed hearings were also held to ensure the safety of those giving evidence.

Members of the public and survivors spoke to the Inquiry not only on the ugly realities of family violence, but on embedded perceptions and attitudes that continue to persist. It was disconcerting to hear in some instances assertions from village sources that everything was well in their villages (e.g. “our village is very peaceful, we hardly have any issues of violence in our village”) when the truth clearly was otherwise. Hard evidence points to numerous cases of family violence occurring in homes and in villages with habitual silence and ignorance, overwhelming individual inclination to seek help or to report violations.

The Inquiry was able to confirm family violence in Samoa to be very real and spiralling out of control. Reassuringly, it also found overwhelming consensus calling for concerted action to be taken within the communities through their traditional leaders and their institutions and the churches under the leadership of the national Government.

Eighty-five per cent of Inquiry survey respondents believe family violence to be a priority issue that should be addressed. It is this consensus which provides the mandate for change, to which Samoa’s political, traditional and religious leaders should take heed. While this overwhelming majority wishes for family violence to be addressed as a priority, there was an obvious lack of understanding of the underlying causes of violence, with many women survivors blaming themselves for acts of violence towards themselves and their children. This suggests a situation in Samoa where awareness raising efforts to date have succeeded in generating support for change, but we still have a long way to go in making people understand the root causes, why violence proliferates, and what needs to be done to combat it. The Inquiry Report and recommendations address these issues.

A significant educational and awareness raising programme, flowing from the Inquiry exercise started two weeks ago and will continue for the next two years. The Human Rights team once again will be providing crucial financial and technical assistance in this phase, which will result in lasting and meaningful change in Samoa. For this we are deeply appreciative. Knowing that the Commonwealth Secretariat supports small institutions such as Samoa’s NHRI, in so many different ways, is heartening and gives us the motivation to redouble our efforts for all Samoans.

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