Taking policy advocacy into the heart of the village and transferring the responsibility to the village leadership for the care, protection and safety of its people
Piloting the Village Family Safety Committee Programme
October 2, 2022
The National Inquiry into Family Violence (NIFV), initiated by the Office of the Ombudsman in 2018, confirmed the increasing trends in the prevalence of family violence in Samoa. Family violence was seen as a systemic issue which affected most families in the country. The NIFV focused on violence against women and girls and the impact of the upbringing of boys and girls. It looked at root causes, triggers and solutions for family violence. One of the key recommendations from the NIFV was to establish village family safety committees. This recommendation was proposed from the extensive Samoa-wide consultations with communities. This was also reaffirmed by the Samoa Family Safety Study by the Ministry of Women, Community and Social Development (MWCSD) in 2017.
The rationale behind a village-based solution, was simply because most villages already had village committees that placed importance on development issues such as education, water and sanitation, health and infrastructure; so why not have a committee for family safety and ending violence if this issue was considered important? There was also an emphasis on the issue of sustainability and continuity of interventions to make a long-term difference at the village level so that it is not forgotten. The recommendation from the NIFV was to have in place a village-based mechanism that fits with the people living in the village. Hence, the idea of the Village Family Safety Committee (VFSC) programme was born and developed into turning it into a pilot programme for six villages across Samoa. Recommendation 20 of the NIFV placed the importance on the role of the Village Fono to lead advocacy efforts to stop family violence in the communities.
The VFSC pilot programme modelled the significance of the 'fa’aSamoa', which uses a culturally responsive, centered approach to empower village leaders and members to proactively be the vanguards of change in the prevention of domestic violence within their villages. The programme was piloted in 2018 and was jointly funded by the SPC (Secretariat of the Pacific Community), UK-Commonwealth, Sisters for Change and later the European Union and United Nations Spotlight Initiative via the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and UN Women.
The NHRI partnership with UNDP through the Spotlight Initiative started in 2020 at the brink of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The NHRI, together with civil society partners as well as the key support from the Spotlight Initiative through UNDP, rolled out the pilot programme activities at the beginning of 2020, establishing the VFSCs in six villages: Asau, Saleia, Taga, Vaie’e, Lotopu’e, and Lalovi, Mulifanua. The VFSC were to advocate for zero tolerance, and to work alongside the village council as an accountability mechanism towards care and protection of its citizens from all forms of violence. The work with the VFSC involved building their capacity around topics of understanding root causes of gender-based violence (GBV), violence against women and girls (VAWG), gender equality and social inclusion, positive parenting, good governance and human rights, social media bullying and so forth. This is also so that they are able to carry out the work as a committee and raise awareness to their village members, understand services available and be able to make referrals to specialized services. One of the key criteria for the composition of the VFSC by the NHRI was to ensure gender inclusion of membership. The composition ranged from 15 to 18 members based on the preference of the village itself. The VFSC were assisted to develop their own safety plans according to specific family violence issues pertaining to their own realities and village context, focused on the strong engagement of the village council, women and girls, persons with disabilities, fa’afafine or Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity, and Expression (SOGIE).
According to Mrs Loukinikini Vili Lewaravu, Director of Human Rights at NHRI: “This was considered a success as it provided the villages with a roadmap of what they wanted to do to come up with relevant solutions to address the issues of family violence”.
NHRI assisted the VFSC to implement their activities. The pilot ended with the launching of the five villages’ bylaws in December 2021, which aim to address family violence in each village context, incorporating laws that protect women, children and persons with disabilities from violence, including the enforcement of protection laws especially if the victim or survivor lives in the village.
“I would like to congratulate the Fono mamalu a Alii ma Faipule of these villages for being champions for family violence prevention within their villages by ensuring the inclusion of bylaws on violence against women and girls, which highlight their commitment to zero tolerance towards family violence. Such commitment recognizes the pivotal role of village leaders in family violence, prevention and the protection of women and girls at the village level,” said the Prime Minister of Samoa, Honorable Fiame Naomi Mata’afa.
“Ever since the programme was introduced, I have noticed the smooth operation of the village activities. Village council members in the committee should lead by example, enforcing a violence-free environment”.
Village Profile: Taga is a village situated on the south coast of the island of Savaii in the electoral district of Palauli. Taga village is popular with its blowholes where the waves can fly away into the sky. The population of Taga village in the 2016 population census is 785, with 393 males and 392 females. The village is dependent on agriculture for daily living as well as domestic markets. Apart from agricultural produce, the village also receives remittances from their Recognized Seasonal Employer (RSE) workers sent overseas every year. There are six different religious denominations in the village: the Congregational Christian Church of Samoa, Seventh Day Adventist, Latter-Day Saints, Assemblies of God, Nazarene and Jehovah’s Witnesses; other members attend other denominations in the nearby villages.
Empowerment through VFSC: The composition of the VFSC in Taga is predominately men, with a few women. Village activities are governed by the overall guidance of the village council of chiefs. Different village groups in Taga have been empowered by the workshops and trainings implemented throughout the VFSC project. The impact of the VFSC programme resulted in transformational behavior change visible throughout the village and recorded as part of the independent review of the NHRI VFSC funded by the Spotlight Initiative through UNDP. The VFSC admitted that there were many different views about the programme in the beginning and it was not easy. However, at the end of the programme, there was a noticeable major change in the village because the village council stood firm in enforcing the bylaws and punishing those who did not follow the village rules. The village council members present at the time, who are also the key decision-makers for the village, gave the assurance that it is their responsibility to continue enforcing their recently developed village bylaws, to ensure that their village is violence free.
Transformational Impact: I have noticed some positive changes amongst our youths. Since the commencement of this programme, I have identified a huge, positive impact in our village. ( Taga VFSC member)
Positive changes have been observed and experienced by the village members and VFSC since the pilot programme started in 2020 at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. The 15 village members were interviewed as part of the VFSC end-of-project review. 67% of those interviewed responded that many positive changes occurred in the village since the programme. Some of the comments by Taga village members:
I recommend continuing the programme as it has benefitted me and my family in so many ways. I have enough patience to address issues with my children rather than beating them up.
My husband no longer lashes out at me and the children with violence ever since he attended the training.
Ever since my husband had given up alcohol, our marriage has greatly improved, and he no longer beats me and the children.
The different denominations in our village can work together as a result of this programme and we recommend for it to be continued.
Village Profile: Vaie’e is a village located on the central south coast of the Upolu islands, situated in the district of Safata. The village population recorded in the 2016 Population was 565, with 304 males and 261 females. Farming is their main source of income and for daily living, with many village members employed in the public service, and private companies in in Samoa. The village has only one established and recognized religious denomination, the Congregational Christian Church of Samoa. The advocacy and village prevention campaigns throughout Samoa have been extensive through the work of the Ministry of Women, Community and Social Development and several other partners in the previous years. Vaie’e had established a village family safety committee prior to the NHRI program, making Vaie’e the first village to set up such a committee and put in place a village law with heavy penalties to prevent and respond to domestic violence and intimate partner violence.
Empowerment through VFSC: The village family safety committee (VFSC) composition is dominated by women and most of the activities were driven by women inclusive of nofotane (village men’s wives). The capacity building and trainings provided by NHRI to the VFSC empowered not only the committee members but the village residents in different ways.
Transformational impact: Various positive changes had occurred in the lives of Vaie’e village members as a result of this VFSC pilot programme as well as other programmes conducted before. UNDP Spotlight conducted an in-person interview with one of the key influencers of the Vaie’e VFSC – Maiava Visekota Tuiā who testified;
“The main difference with the NHRI Village Family Safety program and establishment of village safety committees, is that it has brought the advocacy and placed the advocacy responsibility on the shoulders of the members of the community. It has brought together all the different organs of the village namely, the council of chiefs, daughters of the village (nu’u o sa’oao), faletua ma tausi (wives of chiefs and orators), untitled men and women (nu’u o aumaga)”. Maiava Visekota Tuia, Vaie’e VFSC member, 2022.
What transformation has occurred because of the VFSC empowerment? “The NRHI program came at an opportune time when the village was ready for it, to re-think attitudes and beliefs. The greatest obstacle when advocating for ending domestic violence is to do with the attitudes, beliefs and changing social norms. The change in attitudes comes with a daily reminder, just reminding each other that we have a village safety committee and that we do not condone violence in any form”.
The awareness is at grassroots level, made up of four groups, whose members are actively keeping an eye out and have been trained to counsel and to remind people that DV is against the law. The people are aware of how to access a protection order when required and where to seek help. As part of the day-to-day work, the VFSC have normalized this responsibility and are able to speak to people of the village on issues of DV and its consequences. They also remind the village that violence in our families if it can be eliminated, brings peace within the family. From your family, this peace can extend to the village. In addition, there are penalties (penalties can be up to $2,000 Tala, with Vaie’e being the first village to penalise perpetuators of intimate partner violence, violence against women and children in Samoa) that the Vaie’e committee had instilled as part of the village bylaws.
The village bylaws were agreed to by the village, recorded by the village and for the first time ensures consistency in decision making as it is recorded and has to be followed through with the penalties and decisions made in relation to domestic violence incidents. Since the establishment of the committee and the village bylaws, the number of domestic violence cases reported to the village council has drastically been reduced. The level of awareness has increased immensely, and the village is now taking serious responsibility for the protection and care of its citizens.
The NHRI review of the VFSC also spoke to some of the village committee members who had observed many positive behavioural changes in the village since the programme started. Some of those changes include:
- Continue the programme because it helped a lot in keeping peace in the village
- This programme has many benefits which will greatly assist the families in our village
- Recommend continuing the programme in our village because it has prevented women and girls from being abused
- There is a decrease in the amount of violence in the village as well as punishing offenders
- I have noticed the huge success of this programme in our village in eliminating violence and abuse; as a result, I no longer resort to my old ways of beating up my children because I fear the law in place
- Gaining a better understanding from this programme has enabled me to have a great life by refraining from abusing my wife and children
- This programme has been very helpful for the village, changing men from being abusive husbands and fathers to being more caring, including my husband, due mainly to the knowledge they had obtained from these awareness programmes
- I have learned a lot from this programme and I never want to go back to my old abusive ways.
Further changes observed were recorded during the focus group discussion with the village. These include the punishment by the village council of some fathers for beating up their wives, discussing violence prevention matters during the monthly village meetings, and there was no violence case for the whole of 2021. Discussing the violence prevention matters during the village council meetings is a good start for sustaining the implementation of the programme.
Ua le toe fasia foi a’u e si o’u toalua talu ona auai i polokalame o le anger management (My husband no longer beats me since he attended the VFSC anger management programme)
Village profile: Salei’a is a small sub-village of the larger traditional village district of Matautu situated on the north central coast of Savaii Island. It forms part of the larger constituency district of Gaga’emauga. Its total population after the 2016 national census is 221, with 120 males and 101 females. The economy of the village is mainly dependent on farming and youths employed at the beach fales and neighbouring beach resorts. The Voice of Christ is the only denomination located in the village and other members of the village attend the Congregational Christian Church and Methodist Church located in nearby villages.
Empowerment through VFSC: The composition of the VFSC for Saleia was 50/50 men and women including a church minister’s wife and a fa’afafine. The training received by the committee members, workshops attended by village members and the resources they received through the lifetime of the project increased their knowledge and skill set, which empowered and encouraged everyone to change for the better.
Transformational Impact: There were transformational changes observed in the village by VFSC members and the village council of chiefs who participated in the end of VFSC project evaluation survey. From the 15 village members who completed the questionnaires, almost 50% of them responded that the VFSC programme should be continued because there were many families in their village that had changed for the better because of the programme. Some of the village members reported that ‘ua tele aiga ua fealofani ona o le polokalame; this programme helped a lot in decreasing violence in the village; and, tele o matou ulugalii laiti ua iai suiga lelei talu ona amata le polokalame’.
In addition, there were four members from Salei’a who said “yes” they had experienced violence in the families in the last two to three years. All of them testified:
- I normally beat up my children when they misbehave but now, ua tele lava ina nofo i lalo ma mafaufau (I normally beat my children when they misbehave. But now, I have changed and I sit down to think first)
- Most of us young couples have changed since the programme started
- Ua tele lava ina fealofani aiga o lo matou nuu ona o lenei polokalame manaia tele, ma ua le toe vaaia foi ni sauaga i totonu o le nuu (Since the programme started, I have noticed its positive impact amongst the villagers with how they work together and harmoniously)
The participating village council members had confirmed these improvements observed in the village, during the focus group discussion.
More importantly, around 90% of the village members, inclusive of village council members, emphasized the responsibility of the Village Council as the key body in pushing through all these initiatives. Some participants highlighted that the alii ma faipule of their village should lead and set good examples for the whole village to follow, as well as enforcing the recently passed village bylaws.
In addition, from the VFSC members’ responses, all five of them from Salei’a provided good changes that they had observed in their village since the programme started. The following are some of their comments provided through their questionnaires:
- Continue this programme because there are many good changes that have happened in the village
- Lately, we rarely have any more cases of wives being beaten by their husbands in our village, therefore the programme should be continued
- There should be more training on the programme in the future to enable the villagers to understand its importance
- This programme is appreciated because it has allowed parents to refrain from beating their children
- I recommend continuing the programme due to its positive impact in the village