It takes a village: How Village Council can curb family violence

The Government, church and the Village fono (Council) are the three most important institutions in Samoa, and much of the responsibility to curb family violence rests among them, says the ombudsman.

In its inaugural national inquiry, the Office of the Ombudsman investigated family violence in Samoa and launched its inquiry report last week, which included nearly 40 recommendations, eight of which focus on the village fono.

Despite being traditionally expected to maintain village harmony, village fono often contribute to the growing problem of family violence, the report stated.

“84 percent of male respondents and 76 percent of female respondents felt that the village fono should be leading advocacy efforts to stop family violence,” the report stated, referring to a 2017 Ministry of Women study into family safety.

The Commissioner recommended all village fono urgently consider how to directly include women and other vulnerable groups in their councils and decision making.

 “Absence from the decision-making process means that those groups cannot provide their insight into the true nature of violence, nor help deliver justice,” the report states.

Women make up 11 percent of matai in Samoa, may not hold a title in 8 percent of villages, and in 36 villages, female matai may not attend fono meetings. 

Council policies and by-laws are barring women from participating and affecting the culture of silencing violence, the inquiry found, and changing this is the first step towards ending a culture of family violence.

The report recommended by-laws be introduced to ban family violence, introduce community based punishments for committing violence and for alcohol abuse, and to make reporting family violence to the police mandatory. 

Villages should be required to consult with the Sui Tamatai o le Nuu and the Faletua ma Tausi.

In January, the village of Asau approved a zero tolerance of violence against women policy, and now ban men who assault their wives from the village, a move the inquiry commended.

“Institutionalizing the prohibition of family violence and its consequences would send out a strong warning to all village habitants of the social behaviour that is expected of them,” the report stated.

“The absence of such laws (with the exception of Asau) is a damning indictment of the general attitude towards family violence by the Village Fonos of Samoa and reflects an overwhelming lack of action on their part to play a preventive role in the spread of family violence.”

A major recommendation of the inquiry was for each village to establish Village Safety Committees legislated under the Village Fono Act 1990, which should be amended to include family violence as an area of concern.

These committees would be empowered to monitor protection orders and parole orders, obligated to report instances of family violence to the police and should establish designated shelters for victims of family violence.

“The danger to be avoided in establishing such a committee is that it consists only of female representatives and is used as yet another mechanism for marginalising the issue,” the report warned.

“To be truly effective, such a committee would have to include church ministers, Sui Tamaitai o le Nuu, senior members of the village fono and of the women’s committee.”

Fono should discontinue the practices of requiring victims to report violence to them before the police, unhelpful monetary punishments, and should consider ending banishment as punishment, the report recommended.

When victims are obligated to report abuse to the fono first, they could find themselves facing their very abuser to ask permission to report to the police.

“Even if the perpetrator does not sit in the village fono, it is still possible that reporting to the police is blocked because the perpetrator has close or family ties with those sitting on the village fono.” 

“As a consequence, a victim may not even try to report a matter as they know it will not go any further,” the report stated.

Expensive fines imposed on the perpetrators and their families exacerbate financial pressures, which trigger more violence and victims often bear the weight of the punishments, rather than the perpetrator, the inquiry found.

In a public inquiry hearing, a matai shared how a “golden rule” in their village is the fine of 40 boxes of tinned fish and $2000 tala for pregnant unmarried women, regardless of whether the pregnancy was a result of rape.

Similarly, banishment punishments apply to the entire family of a perpetrator, which often means the victims leave their village with their abuser.

“This punishes the victim but more worryingly means they all have to move to another village where their history is unknown and the perpetrator is free to continue their abusive behaviour with even less scrutiny than before,” the report states.

Fa’alavelave contributions are too competitive which results in financial stress, which was identified as a trigger for family violence.

Village by-laws to limit the contributions families have to make would go some way towards reducing that financial stress, the report said. 

Finally, the report recommended a violence free village programme, a financial incentive based programme where villages would be rated according to their compliance with all recommendations. 

The financial incentives are intended to bridge the income gap created by reducing or removing altogether monetary fines on families affected by family violence.

“Whilst fines imposed by village fono should not be a means of income generation, the reality is that many have become accustomed to a life of reward arising from punishments handed out,” the report stated.

The more a village complied with the eligibility criteria, governance and programmes a village should have, the more funding they would receive from a V.F.V.P. fund. 

These recommendations should be implemented in collaboration with the Ministry of Women, Community and Social Development, the Office of the Attorney General and the Ministry of Justice and Courts Administration, the report said.

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