Brown Girl Woke: Combating family abuse 'epidemic' in Samoa
Apia, SAMOA — 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.”
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.
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.