Four decades ago, Pacific overstayers were the target of dawn raids and families accustomed to the close-knit life of the islands struggled to adjust to New Zealand suburban life. In response, a small group of Pacific women in Auckland set up PACIFICA, which mirrored the community support found back home. Forty years later, the organisation is still working to improve the lives of Pacific people throughout the country. This year's focus is on preventing family violence.
Locking herself in the laundry, Mele* phoned the police, calling for them to come while her husband banged on the door trying to stop her.
“It was like in a movie,” Mele says. “He wasn’t going to bash me up again, he just didn’t want me to follow through with ringing.”
Worried that this time he’d be sent to prison, her husband took off, sparking a car chase through the neighbourhood.
It wasn’t always like this.
They had fallen in love quickly and married within a year but, soon after the ring was on her finger, a different side to her husband surfaced.
“We had an argument when we were driving from our reception to our hotel for our honeymoon night. I can’t even remember what the argument was about but he just changed," Mele says.
“He became this really aggressive, scary person that I had just never seen before.”
A few months after the wedding, they had another argument while driving. It was most likely about parenting, Mele says.
“He just didn’t like what I said, and he was driving and his hand just went ‘doosh’ and bashed me in the face.”
She went to the hospital for an X-ray, wondering what she had done and what she should do.
“I just did what I thought I needed to do, which was to be really open about it and tell people, so I told my parents. His mother came around to visit two days later and she saw me in this puffy face with bruising and she freaked out.”
Her black eye healed, and a promise was made that it wouldn’t happen again.
But it did, and as far as Mele was concerned they would be divorced.
Mele, who is of Samoan descent, grew up in Samoa and Fiji in a family where beatings didn’t exist and arguments were rare, but says for many Samoan families violence is the norm.
“The way you parent is violent, [and] the way people interact with each other. Aggression and violence is just really quite standard but, for me, it wasn’t.”
Instead of divorce, Mele and her husband lived in separate households for a decade so she could avoid exposing her children to any violence and spend time with him on her own terms.
They’ve since reconciled and lived together violence-free for the past 10 years.
Mele says she was raised to be a resilient, proactive person who sought and received a lot of help, and didn’t hesitate to seek help from family and the legal system.
“I knew that nothing justifies violence, but I think for a lot of women [there’s] shame, the embarrassment, the ma, which is a Samoan word for shame, of other people knowing and also feeling like it’s their fault.”
Creating peace for the next generation
Mele never felt she needed to keep quiet, but many do, so this year at its 40th conference, PACIFICA Inc made preventing family violence among Pacific families its focus in an effort to change the culture of silence.
Its national president, Caren Rangi, says talanoa (talking) is important to remove stigma and encourage people to share ideas about preventing family violence.
“Anything around relationships breaking down is difficult, particularly in the different cultural hierarchies we have in Pacific communities, where there are strict rules around who we should and shouldn’t respect.”
There is nothing to suggest Pacific people are more violent than other communities but being an immigrant or minority population in another country can have an effect she says.
“But again it’s a small part of a whole lot of connected issues around socio-economic status, poverty, employment status, educational levels, health - all of these things are associated with family violence,” Caren says.
Surveying violence - and finding solutions
Family violence includes physical, mental, verbal, and financial abuse, and research on incidents in Pacific families is sparse.
To remedy this, the Ministry for Women surveyed 68 Samoans to find out their understanding of prevention of violence towards women.
One of the ministry's principal policy analysts, Helen Potiki, says the prevalence of the violence is well known but less is known about how certain groups of women understand prevention, and about what’s working in families and communities.
“Samoan culture inherently protects Samoan women,” she says. “There are cultural values and practices specifically for keeping families, men, women and children safe from violence, like respect for one another’s space and one another’s opinions and roles in the community.”
All participants said they had witnessed, been subjected to, or perpetrated violence and wanted to have discussions across generations about what had happened and how they could stop it from happening in the future.
There are no plans at the moment to do further research on other ethnicities, Helen says - but it will be considered if there is a need for programmes or initiatives.
Read the Ministry for Women’s report: A malu i ‘āiga, e malu fo’i i fafo: Protection for the Family, Protection for All (2015)
In an emergency, call 111
Organisations who can help can be found here: Ministry for Women: Where to go for help
Some Pacific providers are listed here: Pasefika Proud
* Mele's last name has not been used for privacy reasons.