PEOPLE OF 2020: Siliniu Lina Chang and S.V.S.G.

For fifteen years, the Samoa Victim Support Group has provided a refuge for victims, both young and old, of sexual crimes and abuse. Since its establishment, they have been a beacon of hope to hundreds of women and children who would otherwise have nowhere else to turn to for help.

Before they were established, the absence of an organisation in Samoa dedicated to providing support and refuge for victims of sexual crimes was quite evident.

To fill the void, ex-police officers and members of criminal investigation team of the Attorney General’s Office led by then Attorney General, Taulapapa Brenda Heather-Latu, came together to form S.V.S.G., with the purpose to care, counsel, and support and to help victims of sexual crimes. 

In 2013, the Samoa Victim Support Group advocated for legislative changes that protect the rights of vulnerable people, and saw the government of Samoa passed landmark legislation (Family Safety Act 2013 and Crimes Act 2013) criminalizing family violence and establishing a Family Court.

This has provided focus on children’s rights and enables more people to come forward to report abuse and seek resolution. S.V.S.G. remains the only organisaion to refuge vulnerable children in Samoa.

The Group has more than 70 children under their care at the Campus of Hope at Tuanaimato.

To date, it has established six sub-groups abroad some in Australia, New Zealand, and American Samoa. 

According to the president of S.V.S.G., Siliniu Lina Chang, one of the most risky cases they encountered was when their team had to evacuate one of the victims but were came under threat.

"Our team informed me that a family member was threatening them with a machete but I told them no one comes back without the victim because that victim is at risk and has to be saved," she added.

The Group has been busier thanks to a helpline that members of the public can call for free.

"We trained our staff to assess every call we get, we don’t judge, at least we know that the people that called are safe.

"The youngest child that we have had under our care was a two-year-old who was indecently assaulted by a family member."

When speaking about the nature of their work she said that there are more sad times than happy times. 

“It is because you cry for a child, get to know them and their stories at the same time the work we do is rewarding no matter how the long hours and sleepless nights."

For the year of 2020, the Group has had many cases that are related to impacts from COVID-19 global pandemic.

According to statistics provided by the Group, it states that a total of 3,360 cases which include assault, rape, incest, domestic violence and child abuse have been referred to them for the year 2020.

Out of the total number of cases, 1,073 were of sexual violence cases but 1,019 were against children up to 18-years-old.

However, the Group also dealt with 3,025 cases of domestic violence while 635 were against children.

Siliniu explained that the Campus of Hope housed 153 children during the period of July and August due to COVID-19 related impacts.

The mother of five added that everyone included in their line of work comes together like a family.

“Our team is like a family, everyone has their own parts to play like the volunteers, village representatives, and staff."

The 64-year-old also shared that it was not an easy journey; they went through many criticism and ridicules from the general public.

“It hasn’t even tainted us; I believe it was through the strong foundation it was setup on plus God, without Him I would have given up a long time ago.

“I always feel that we were handpicked to do the work and guided by God, with all the hardships and mockery against us we welcome it and also learn from it but they do not know that the more they do that, it strengthens us. 

“We never focus or dwell on it, we move as if nothing happened and plus if they can do the work we do better than we also welcome it. We also thank our people for the belief and confidence in the Victim Support to carry out the work."

Siliniu also relayed that they deal with people with disabilities, children, elderlies, youths, nofotane women, advocacy programme for people that have been referred from court.

Another memory she mentioned was the story of an 18-year-old girl who was an alleged victim of rape but passed away in 2019 due to heart problems.

“I will never forget the words she told me: ‘Let what happened to me end with me.

“In a Christian nation, children should grow up safely within their own family environment that’s why I’m calling on all the parents to please love your children’.”

One of the victims who sought help with Victim Support, Leilua Lino was raped by her own biological father at a young age but was bold to testify against him in Court and later raise awareness in primary schools on child abuse — for the benefit of children across Samoa.

Her testimony in Court — despite her mother’s plea that he was a “good man” — proved crucial in ensuring her father was sentenced to 29 years imprisonment.

Ms. Lino was a 2018 International Children’s Peace Prize award finalist. She also met Prince Harry at the Marlborough House in London in 2019 where she was among 14 other innovators in international development who received a trophy, certificate and £2,000 (T$6,743).

“My campaign has enabled a lot of victims to speak up about the struggles they face, especially violence within families," she said. 

“I want the children to understand that there is hope for them and that there is someone out there that will help save them because no child should grow up in a violent and unsafe environment.

“I have faced my own problems and overcame them but I want them to do the same. It is because keeping things bottled up will not be helpful it causes stress and others problems.”

She added that she went through the same thing and wished someone had told her that there was help.

“I am forever grateful that I found help through S.V.S.G.”

Aside from casework, S.V.S.G. also commissioned the Nofotane programme with the hope that it will improve the access of nofotane women in rural Samoa to sustainable employment and increased participation in domestic and community matters.

The programme was funded by the United Nations Women which trained 5,000 unemployed nofotane women in livelihood skills, and ensured sustainable self-employment, of 500 of these unemployed nofotane women. It also strengthened the understanding and enforcement of legal protection for 3,000 nofotane domestic workers.  

Furthermore, the Group also dealt with relief distributions comprised of food, water and clothes for hundreds of vulnerable families during the measles epidemic and now with the COVID-19 global pandemic period.

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