Church Responses to Gender-Based Violence Against Women in Samoa: Supporting Church Capacity for Transformative Social Leadership

Fitiao Susan Faoagali (MWCSD – far left) with guest speakers Prof David Tombs (middle) & Dr Mercy Siu-Maliko (second from right), and seminar participants (Photo Credit: Samoa Planet)

During the last three months (March-June 2018) the project has hosted a series of significant engagement events in Apia, Suva and Auckland. These have brought stakeholders and researchers together to share expertise and experience in addressing the central question:

How can the churches offer effective leadership in response to violence against women (VAW) in Samoa?

Apia, Samoa

In Samoa we started with a seminar hosted by the Centre for Samoan Studies at the National University of Samoa (NUS). Prof Tombs presented on Church Responses to Violence Against Women as a Global Concern (15 March). The presentation and the lively discussion which followed explored how insights from church responses to violence against women in other parts of the world might also have relevance to opportunities in Samoa. The event was also an opportunity for further discussion with project-partners Professor Malama Meleisea and Dr Ramona Boodoosingh at NUS who were generous hosts for the seminar.

A one-day conference took place on 16 March at Piula Theological College, under the title Tatala le Ta’ui a le Atua: Rolling Out the Fine Mat of Scripture. The programmae was organised by Dr Mercy Ah Siu-Maliko and colleagues at the college. Participants included NGOs and churches, the Ministry of Women, Community & Development, the Ministry of Justice and Courts Administration, the Ministry of Police, the Ombudsman’s office, academics and visiting scholars, as well as the wider public. Samoa TV 1 covered the event on the evening news and again on the weekly highlights programme.

The Ministry of Women, Community & Development invited Prof Tombs and Dr Mercy Ah Siu-Maliko to present at a further event at the Ministry in Apia on 19 March. This allowed for discussion with key stakeholders and policy makers to extend the analysis from the NUS seminar and Piula conference. Fitiao Susan Faoagali, Assistant Chief Executive Officer, MWCSD’s Research, Policy, Planning and Communication division told Samoa Planet,

“The ministry of women community and social development is very pleased to have hosted the seminar today to discuss the churches response to sexual gender based violence.

“The figures of gender based violence and family violence in Samoa are not good and the message from the Ministry is that it’s time to change. The message today from Prof David and Dr Mercy reinforced our view that using faith based principles and approaches is just as important as using rights based principles in tackling gender based violence and family violence in Samoa. 

Lastly the key message from the seminar for us was the huge potential the church has now to transform lives in this area and the useful research that Dr Mercy is already carrying out at Piula Theological College.”

Suva, Fiji

Churches Tackling Gender-Based Violence: Preventing Violence, Reporting Perpetrators, Restoring Survivors was a two-day NZIPR conference at Pacific Theological College (PTC) in Suva. It was held 12-13 April, and hosted by Rev Prof Feleterika Uili Nokise, Dr Richard Davis, and colleagues. A range of speakers from local and regional organisations addressed the prevalence of violence against women in the Pacific region and the need for strong and proactive church action. The conference promoted a regional perspective on the issues alongside the work in Samoa. The difference between Fiji and Samoa in terms of the higher commitment of church leadership in Fiji was particularly notable. The conference included a half-day workshop led by Prof. Gerald West (University of KwaZulu-Natal) on how contextual bible studies on stories like the rape of Tamar (2 Samuel 13) can create spaces within churches for transformative conversations on violence against women. In the evening of 12 April, the Institute for Mission and Research at PTC hosted a well-attended public lecture by Rev Dr Cliff Bird (Council for World Mission) on ‘Responding to Domestic Violence: An Ecumenical Voice to Broken Families’.

Earlier in the same week, Prof. Tombs was also able to attend a two-day Forum at PTC (9-10 April) organised by UnitingWorld (Australia). The Forum highlighted UnitingWorld’s innovative work in the Pacific on Partnering Women for Change, and included plenary presentations form Rev Dr Bird on addressing violence against women and gender equality theology.


A third sequence of events was held in Auckland from 7-11 June. This series was organised by Dr Caroline Blyth (University of Auckland) and began on 7 June with a seminar at University of Auckland. Prof. Malama Meleisea (Centre for Samoan Studies, National University of Samoa) spoke on ‘Samoa’s National Public Inquiry on Family Violence’. The Inquiry was held in 2017 by the Human Rights Institution of Samoa through the Ombudsman’s Office. Associate Prof. Penelope Schoeffel spoke on the research behind the chapter ‘All About Eve: Women’s Attitudes to Gender-Based Violence in Samoa’ which she co-authored with Dr Ramona Boodoosingh and Galumalemana Steven Percival in the recently published book, Rape Culture, Gender Violence and Religion: Interdisciplinary Perspectives edited by Caroline Blyth, Emily Colgan and Katie Edwards (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).  Prof. Tombs spoke on ‘Violence Against Women in Samoa: Challenges and Opportunities’.

On 8 June a panel discussion on ‘Church Responses to Violence Against Women’ was held in partnership with St John the Evangelist College and Trinity Theological College, Auckland. The Panelists included Dr Emily Colgan, Rev Dr Joan Alleluia Tofaeono, and Prof Tombs, chaired by Rev Dr Frank Smith of St John’s College.

The bible studies facilitated by Dr Ah Siu-Maliko were the focus for 9 June, with participants from Pacific churches in Auckland and hosted by Rev Dr Smith. These study groups looked at the story of Tamar (2 Samuel 13) in the morning, and the story of Hagar (Genesis 16) in the afternoon. After reading the passages together participants discussed the relevance of the stories to different forms of violence against women in the Pacific.

The seminar, panel and bible studies set the stage for the one-day conference at the Fale, University of Auckland on 11 June, Church Responses to Gender Violence in Samoa.

The morning keynotes were presented by Dr Ah Siu-Maliko, Piula Theological College, ‘Tatala le Ta’ui a le Atua (Rolling Out the Fine Mat of Scripture): Constraints and Opportunities’; Rev Dr Joan Alleluia Filemoni-Tofaeono, University of Auckland, ‘Embrace our Voice: A call to re-image Tama’ita’i Samoana (women) in the image of God‘ ; Dr Nasili Vaka’uta, Trinity Theological College, Auckland, ‘#MeToo: Troubling ‘Sexual Abuse’ in Scriptures’. In the afternoon, the documentary Sisi le Lā’afa – Raise the Sennit Sail , directed by Galumalemana Steven Percival, was screened and discussed. This included attention to the reactions the documentary prompted when screened in Samoa, as discussed in the chapter by Schoeffel, Boodoosingh and Percival, ‘All About Eve’. The day ended with a wider discussion of some of the key issues on church responses to VAW which have emerged in the NZIPR project events.

Key Issues on Church Responses to VAW 

As the project has progressed a number of emergent issues have been identified. These include:

The prevalence of VAW. At the PTC conference, UNWomen presented on the global and regional prevalence figures for VAW. The global figure for violence against women is 1 in 3 i.e. across the globe, 1 in 3 women experience some form of physical or sexual violence in their lifetime. However, this rises to 2 in 3 women as an average for the Pacific region. Given the very high percentage of people in the Pacific who identify as Christian, and/or church members, this very high occurrence of VAW raises at least three urgent questions for the churches in this region:

  • Is there a relationship between the high rates of VAW and the high rates of church membership?
  • What responses are the churches already making to address VAW?
  • How might the churches do more in their responses to VAW?

Current church disengagement from VAW prevention initiatives. In Fiji, church leaders have recently made a clear public commitment to VAW prevention initiatives. The church leaders support and participate in the 16 Days of Activism national campaign. So far, there has been no similar public church commitment in Samoa. The problem of VAW is well-known but the three largest churches appear disconnected from government and NGO prevention initiatives. The churches stand on the side-lines rather than engaging actively. There is no question that the churches in Samoa have huge potential to offer innovative and influential leadership on VAW issues if they positively embrace this as part of their mission and ministry. However, this commitment must come from within the churches if it is to result in long-term change.

Victim-Blaming, Shaming, and Silence. In both the churches and in wider society, victim-blaming rather than support is a common response to women who experience violence. Even when the victim is not directly blamed, many women who experience violence fear shame and stigma within their communities and churches. The widespread silence on VAW often reinforces the sense of shame. The silence of the church and the community on VAW is not neutral; it is experienced by survivors as judgemental and harmful. One very valuable contribution which churches are well-placed to offer is to publicly challenge attitudes to shame, stigma and silence around VAW. This can reduce the additional harm suffered by women who experience violence, and will help the church to offer more effective support. For this to happen, the churches need to examine their own responses to survivors and how these may be reinforcing these problems. Talking about the issues in church settings can make a huge difference. The bible studies which Dr Mercy Ah-Siu Maliko is developing provide a way to have these conversations.