‘The silence is suffocating’: family abuse ‘epidemic’ uncovered in Samoa | Eleanor Ainge Roy | Global development

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Blood on the walls. Bruises like smashed plums. As long as Sefina* can remember, family violence has been part of her life. She watched her mother routinely attacked by her stepfather. “Sorry,” her mother would whisper afterwards to the children.

Then, Sefina’s elder sister was nearly killed by a group of male relatives for breaking the curfew. “Sorry,” her sister told her as she later left the island for good.

“It’s a norm here. You don’t talk about violence, you have to be absolutely silent,” says Sefina, now 22, and suffering from depression and anxiety. She has survived multiple suicide attempts.

“Nobody asks for help, you can’t reach out for help. The silence is overwhelming, it suffocates you. Sometimes I feel like I’m losing my sanity.”

Samoa is a small Polynesian country located in the western Pacific Ocean. Fields of taro flank the side of the country’s few roads, and coconut palms and ginger flowers dot well-tended villages, where the people by and large live very traditional lives; defined by church, subsistence farming, and loyalty to family.

But the beauty of this verdant tropical paradise conceals a dark secret: one of the highest rates of family and sexual violence in the world. Last year, Samoa became the first Pacific Island country to conduct a national public inquiry into family violence. Published in late 2018, the findings revealed an “epidemic” of violence and sexual abuse.

The report found that “violence is affecting almost all families in Samoa”, with nine out of 10 respondents reporting abuse occurring regularly within the home. About 60% of women have experienced intimate partner violence, and 20% of women reported being raped, while cases of incest were around 10%.

As with all self-reported statistics, the actual numbers are thought to be far higher.

“The government’s lack of commitment and approach through inadequate allocation of resources, support and lack of coordination sends to people a message that gender inequality and family violence is acceptable,” the report found. It estimated the cost to Samoa’s GDP to be around 6-7% every year.

Maluseu Doris Tulifau, 28, is a survivor of domestic violence. Her family is from Samoa and she relocated there from the US 18 months ago to launch a female empowerment group, Brown Girl Woke. Tulifau says Samoa’s culture of violence has spread to the US, Australia and New Zealand through the diaspora of Samoan immigrants, and she wanted to “go back to the source”, to study and tackle the problem.





Doris Tulifau is founder of Brown Girl Woke, a group working on domestic violence awareness in Samoa.



Maluseu Doris Tulifau is founder of Brown Girl Woke, a group working to raise awareness of domestic violence in Samoa. Photograph: Myka Stanley/The Guardian

Brown Girl Woke has gained a cult-like following of young women and men on social media and local college campuses. Just as many young men are members as women. The group mainly meet on college campuses – a neutral zone – where they host open-mic nights, poetry readings and “safe space” groups to gently open up discussions about what might be going on at home.

Tulifau says many young Samoans are open to the concept of gender equality, but are torn between their conservative home lives in the villages, and the possibility of a more equal and modern society in the future.

On the streets of Apia, the small and industrial capital city, men walk around in packs, ogling women and making lewd, loud comments. Women and girls disappear from the streets by dusk, and do not reappear until morning. Raised in a strictly patriarchal society, many Samoan women have been trained from birth to take up as little physical space as possible, to use voices that are barely audible, and to defer to all men they encounter with lowered eyes and a shrinking quality that is surprising to witness.

“We are a selfless community,” says Tulifau. “We don’t see ourselves as individuals, that’s why we’re silent. When any of us get molested or raped, we consider our family, and the family of the perpetrator, and how the whole village will be impacted.

“A lot of the other organisations, because they’re part of the government, are tainted by corruption. They can’t really speak out. I am still that loud overseas person where I don’t have to deal with the bullshit.”

Victory Tuala-Tamalelagi, 19, is part of Brown Girl Woke, and is an outspoken advocate for gender equality in Samoa. He grew up watching his three sisters do all the housework, which convinced him that Samoa’s patriarchal system needed an overhaul.

“For us, the boys, in general terms – we’re woke,” says Tuala-Tamalelagi with a grin.

“If the world can see men standing up for women, we can spark a change, somehow, somewhere. The ultimate goal is equality. I want to wake up one day and know there are at least 16 members of parliament who are women.”





A meeting of members of Brown Girl Woke.



A meeting of members of Brown Girl Woke. Photograph: Myka Stanley/The Guardian

Five women hold seats in Samoa’s parliament, and women are largely excluded from holding positions of authority or decision-making on village councils.

Tuala-Tamalelagi says evidence of Samoa’s patriarchal structure is “everywhere”. Even in the university cafeteria, he observes young men subtly controlling their girlfriends. He has received hate mail and abuse for his outspokenness on women’s rights.

“When I see a guy is hanging with his girlfriend, he will choose everything for her, he will choose her food. Women here don’t really have a voice. It’s disgusting. Men want you to behave a certain way to fit their needs, instead of being yourself. Those small things tell the larger story.”





Brown Girl Woke founder Doris Tulifau addresses group members



Brown Girl Woke founder Maluseu Doris Tulifau addresses group members. Photograph: Myka Stanley/The Guardian

The Samoa Victim Support group (SVSG) is the country’s only domestic violence frontline service, but some experts claim there is a lack of transparency about how it operates and whom it helps. There are concerns about the qualifications of its counsellors and the state of safe houses. The SVSG declined interview requests from the Guardian, as did the domestic violence unit of the police force, and the police commissioner.

Church plays a big role in daily life in Samoa. About 99% of Samoans are active churchgoers, and central Apia has a wide variety of places of worship.

Dr Mercy Ah Siu-Maliko, the only female lecturer at the Piula Theological college, says a literal belief in the Old Testament reinforces patriarchal views.

“Patriarchal theology continues to shape Samoans’ interpretation of the Bible. A literal reading of biblical passages is still used to justify men’s dominance over women and their right to physically ‘discipline’ women and children,” she says.

“Inherent in this approach to scripture is a patriarchal understanding of God. If God is a controlling male father-figure, then men must be like this masculine God, and the question then becomes, to what lengths does their control go?”

Ah Siu-Maliko believes it’s her calling to speak out against domestic violence but she is frequently the target of criticism.

The Methodist Church, Catholic Church and Samoan Council of Churches declined interviews with the Guardian.

Both Tulifau and Ah Siu-Maliko say Samoa is “awash” in aid funding for gender equality programmes, and say NGOs – many without experience or expertise in family violence – are multiplying like mushrooms to get a slice of the lucrative pie.





The village chief of Vaiee Lealaimanu Mapusaga is working with Brown Girl Woke.



Earlier this year Lealaimanu Mapusaga (right), chief of the village of Vaiee, introduced fines for domestic violence. Photograph: Myka Stanley/The Guardian

But it is in the villages of Samoa that programmes are needed.

Vaiee is an hour’s drive south of Apia, in Safata Bay. Along with its well-tended lawns, the village has a bylaw banning domestic violence.

Earlier this year, chief Lealaimanu Mapusaga introduced a $761 (£625) fine for any husband found guilty of beating his wife. A few weeks after passing the bylaw, a man badly beat his young son, so Mapusaga tweaked the bylaw to include children, and ordered the man to pay the fine. If he had refused, he would have been evicted from the village.

“The general feeling of this village is to never put its name in shame. Because whatever problems happening in families, the villages’ name is carried,” says Mapusaga, sitting in a small hut by the sea’s edge.

According to the ministry of women, around 17 of Samoa’s more than 300 villages have now implemented bylaws against domestic violence. But it is not known if any have implemented these laws. In some villages, curfews are enforced at 6.30pm, and bells toll to urge every resident home for the night. Men carrying large sticks enforce the curfews, designed not to combat domestic violence but to keep young people at home.





Chief Mapusaga works with Brown Girl Woke.



Chief Mapusaga (left) is working with the organisation Brown Girl Woke to reduce family violence in his village. Photograph: Myka Stanley/The Guardian

Sefina says her childhood of violence has led to an adulthood of dating aggressive men, and ongoing “suffocation” of male relatives patrolling her every move. But she has joined Brown Girl Woke, and is receiving coaching from Tulifau on how to recognise violent and toxic relationship patterns. She expresses herself through poetry and stories, which she shares on social media, and has amassed hundreds of fans.

“I feel happier than I’ve ever been before,” says Sefina.

“I feel a huge burden lifted off, and I feel safe. I finally feel safe.”

*Name has been changed to protect identity

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