SVSG Helpline provides Lifeline during COVID-19 lockdown

Giving them HopeGiving them hope – a Samoa Victims Support Group Counsellor with some of the children under their care at the Campus of Hope in Tuana’imato.  

APIA, SAMOA –*Rita (Not her real name) fervently prayed as she prepared to leave the Campus of Hope that had been her sanctuary for three months. “Today will be different, I just know it,” were the words she spoke as she prepared to return home to her children and husband of 13 years.

As a constant victim of physical, verbal and emotional abuse in her marriage over the years, Rita, a 51-year-old mother of nine, had sought refuge at the Campus of Hope, a shelter for women and children victims of domestic violence, as a last resort.

Late one night in April this year, Rita fled to her sister-in-law’s house next door for safety from her incensed husband who was abusing and swearing at her. Her niece, who had seen the Spotlight Initiative’s free helpline social media promotion, told her about this and they contacted the Samoa Victims Support Group (SVSG) that runs the helpline.

“The response was immediate. Rita was offered care and protection under the SVSG’s Campus of Hope, and became her safe haven and counselling support for 12 weeks. Other support services provided included a protection order issued immediately, and her husband was taken into police custody.” 

 When the Spotlight Initiative caught up with Rita after 12 weeks, she was full of hope and optimism.

“I am so glad I sought refuge with SVSG when I did, as they not only protected me, they also facilitated counselling for both my husband and I which has led to the change that I have seen in him and in our relationship,” said Rita.

During her time at the shelter, Rita had to be separated from her children, but she was determined to see through the process to create a positive change for her family and herself. Reflecting on her ordeal, Rita said she is glad she sought help when she did, and that she stayed the course.

“Don’t be afraid to take that step to seek help, you will take courage when you look into the eyes of your children,” she said, encouraging other women who are going through what she did to not suffer in silence. 

“Rita is now reunited with her family. Her husband, of his own free will, is currently undergoing counseling support through the SVSG Men Against Violence Programme for anger management and alcohol addiction problems. He is sometimes accompanied by Rita at these sessions.”

On a recent follow-up visit with the SVSG counsellors, Rita said she is a changed woman. Her courage to speak out and seek help has motivated her husband to become a better man, husband and father. Rita, who relies mainly on the family plantation and selling cocoa and fruits by the roadside for income, visits the shelter often with baskets of coconuts from her plantation, to help feed the children and women at the Campus of Hope, as her way of giving back to those who gave her hope during her darkest moments.

Rita’s story ended well because she was able to access help on time. It altered the course of her marriage and her life, thanks to the immediate help provided by SVSG via the Spotlight Initiative-supported free helpline.

Louisa Apelu of Spotlight Initiative
Louisa Apelu of Spotlight Initiative UNDP & Siliniu Lina Chang of SVSG at the House of Dreams – part of the Campus of Hope offering a new start to victims of violence.

The Spotlight Initiative is a joint programme of the European Union and the United Nations via its various agencies including UNDP and USD4 million has been allocated for UN programmes in Samoa. These funds will, in conjunction with national partners, support the development of legislation and policies to eliminate violence against women, and to strengthen national and sub-national institutions in responding to the needs of victims.

“We are grateful for the timely partnership between SVSG and UNDP through the Spotlight Initiative. 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’” said Siliniu Lina Chang, President of SVSG.  

Just last Sunday night, SVSG responded to a call referred to its helpline from the 911 emergency line. It was a case of an attempted suicide – a young girl in Savaii stemming from an issue with her family. SVSG has more than 800 representatives in villages across the country. One of them, in a village near where the incident happened, was quickly dispatched to attend to this case. Along with the help of the SVSG officer in Savaii, they were able to track down the family involved and offered help and support. By 2 the next morning, the matter was resolved, and the girl was reconciled with her family.

While the lockdown has been lifted, Samoa continues to be under a state of emergency with some restrictions still in place. To date, SVSG has answered 533 calls through the national helplines, and distress calls recorded and responded to were directly related to 86 domestic violence incidents in the home.

“As part of the helpline case management referrals, high risk priority cases were immediately referred for Police intervention, 17 to the courts for interim protection orders, and 42 victims, who were all women and children, were cared for under the SVSG shelter.”

The Helplines connected more than 3,000 family members of men, women, children and people with disabilities and the LGBT+ community in Upolu and Savaii, to one or more support services. These range from counselling, suicide affected families in need of support, evacuation and shelter for care and protection, case management and referrals, health, legal and police services, welfare assistance and community support.

The Spotlight Initiative, in response to gender-based violence (GBV) and COVID-19 allocated USD20, 000 to support SVSG as a mainstream frontline Community Service Organization providing essential services to ensure GBV-response services are available and accessible to women, children and any vulnerable individual, in a safe manner during the country’s state of emergency. SVSG responded to 415 calls through the Helpline, with 46 distress calls responded to with Police intervention during the first six weeks of lockdown relating to domestic violence.

Rita’s story is one of many with happy endings that have come out of the SVSG Campus of Hope. Her prayers for a different day have been answered, as she has now turned a new chapter in her life with her husband and family. Others have not been so fortunate, but with the incredible work of organizations like SVSG, and the financial backing and critical partnerships like the one between the European Union and the UN, it is hoped that more stories like Rita’s will continue to emerge.

Through programmes like the Spotlight Initiative, it is also hoped that the scourge of domestic violence and GBV will be totally eliminated from our society.

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