Providing targeted help and support services when it mattered most: SVSG

October 2, 2022

At the start of the nation-wide lockdowns in 2020, *Rita reached out to the Samoa Victim’s Support Group (SVSG) for help, through their free help lines, funded by the Spotlight Initiative (SI). “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. Her husband had hit her, and she feared for her life and that of her children. SVSG were able to evacuate her during the first national lockdown, and she stayed at the Sakura House – SVSG’s shelter for victims of domestic violence for eight weeks. Rita’s story was first featured in Spotlight’s newsletter in 2020.

“We are grateful for the timely partnership between SVSG and UNDP through the Spotlight Initiative,” said 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 time Rita was with SVSG, she underwent counselling support. At the same time, her husband attended an anger management programme for perpetrators of violence. In the end, the couple managed to work out their differences and were reunited. Currently, the couple are providing staple food supply for the children at SVSG. During her time at the shelter, Rita saw that those were some of the pressing needs – taro, bananas, and other staples – and together with her husband, they are now donating these to the shelter.

“It’s also a good way for us to monitor them. The couple are now working together, and they’ve patched things up. Their problems started when the husband was laid off from work, and it was a distressing time. They now have their own plantation, and they are now selling to provide for themselves as this has now become an income-generation activity for them, and they are also able to share with the children the excess of those supplies,” said Ms. Pepe Tevaga, SVSG’s Program Manager.

The helpline enabled the community to reach out to SVSG for help during the lockdown, a period which saw an increase in the risk of violence, abuse, and domestic violence, as both the parents and children were home together. Through the helpline, a total of over 3,000 women, men and children were able to reach out in times of distress from being unemployed and other factors, and SVSG was able to provide them with counselling. This support by the Spotlight Initiative through UNDP enabled the SVSG staff to be able to provide this critical service and reach out to the survivors of gender-based violence on time.

“The assistance we received from the Spotlight Initiative was different in the sense that it really put the spotlight on the support services needed at the time, especially in light of COVID and the lockdown in 2020. The Spotlight Initiative enabled SVSG to become a frontline service provider through its virtual connection through the helpline, Facebook, and email. Instead of us being there out there in the community, we were able to work from home or from our office, connecting to the survivors through the virtual connection that was made possible through SI,” said Ms. Tevaga.

These are some of the many ‘success stories’ to have come out of SVSG, especially in relation to the Spotlight Initiative via UNDP’s assistance to the organization, at the height of the COVID pandemic in Samoa.

“There were a lot of success stories throughout this time even though it was a challenging time. There were also a lot of lessons learnt,” said Ms. Tevaga.

The SVSG partnership with the Spotlight Initiative also led to the formation of SVSG’s Domestic Violence Policy, which provides overall direction for its domestic violence work. It also provides practical guidelines on how to use the Sakura House, the domestic violence shelter for women. The policy also ensures that SVSG complies with its vision and mission concerning survivors of violence.

Another notable achievement to come from the SVSG-SI partnership, is the support to the nofotane project with women who are married and are living with their husband’s family, during the COVID state of emergency lockdown. Through SI and the UNDP Covid Response Programme, funding assistance enabled the women to sew reusable cloth masks from the confines and the safety of their own homes, and through this, they were encouraged to earn.

“The SI helped boost the self-esteem of nofotane women who were in business, especially at the time of lockdowns. These women became the breadwinners for their families,” said Ms. Tevaga.

 Ms. Tevaga also said the SI provided an enabling environment during COVID which encouraged the women survivors of violence to become the breadwinners. This was at a time when their husbands, who were usually the main income earners, were laid off from work due to border closure and lockdowns. The SI provided an enabling environment by putting the spotlight on what was needed at the time. The Nofotane project is funded by the European Union through the Government of Samoa’s Civil Society Support Programme, in partnership with SVSG.  With a focus on the promotion of gender equality through economic development, the ‘Nofotane’ launched in August last year their digital or online market, which SI was invited to participate in. 

“The need at this stage is to continue the momentum. We already have response services through helplines and case management, we also have early intervention through the Positive Discipline Parenting and Adolescent Development programmes, as well as community prevention through engaging the community. The need at this stage is to continue being accessible; for our services to be accessible; to continue being relevant with the services we provide and continue to engage the community because through engaging the communities, this ensures sustainability. It’s a matter of continuing the momentum and getting the community to engage more,” said Ms. Tevaga.

To respond to the spike in violence during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Initiative has programmed US$51,000 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.

The Spotlight Initiative has certainly lived up to its name, by focusing attention on the most pertinent issues at hand.

By: Laufaleaina Lesa and Louisa Apelu

*Rita – not her real name, her story being reprinted below.

“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 a survivor of violence and a SVSG client.

 “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. 

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.

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.