Shining a light on the Pacific's dark underbelly

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Grace Ellis
/ Categories: General

 

*Story mentions sexual assault

 

The Pacific Islands are known to Kiwis as an island paradise, an idyllic holiday destination with snorkelling, fancy resorts, pristine blue water, palm-lined beaches, sunny skies and friendly locals. But on the other side of the picture-perfect postcard lies a serious and growing problem—human trafficking and exploitation.

The good news is that Tearfund and our local partners are doing something about it. I have recently returned from visiting our partners in The Solomon Islands and Fiji, gathering images and stories, showing how they are fighting human trafficking – the fastest growing criminal industry on the planet.

I was blown away by the influence and impact they are having from the grassroots right up to government level, and I know you will be too.

 

Interested in supporting Tearfund’s work in the Asia-Pacific region?

Donate today

 

The first partner I’d like you to meet is Homes of Hope in Fiji.

Homes of Hope

Homes of Hope is a restorative care shelter and training facility for survivors of all forms of sexual abuse, exploitation and human trafficking. Our partner gives survivors as young as 11 a fresh start by giving them a safe place to recover with the help of counsellors, social workers and a community of women who have been through similar experiences.

At Homes of Hope, the residents learn valuable life skills like sewing, baking, cooking, housekeeping, farming and agriculture. They also partake in therapies like art and movement therapy, which are proven to help people find healing. Once they're ready and safety nets are in place in the villages and homes, the women and girls reintegrate into the community. Some decide to study at university, others find jobs, and some start their own small businesses.

 

The residents at Homes of Hope learning how to sew clothes. Credit: Tearfund New Zealand

 

Over 1,000 women have gone through the programme since it began. Sohana is one of those women. She was just 14 when her innocence was tragically taken from her.

 

Sohana (18) was a resident at Homes of Hope. Credit: Tearfund New Zealand

 

"I was waiting at the bus stop when I was kidnapped by two drunk men. I was pulled into a truck and they covered my mouth so I couldn’t scream." The men took her to a forestry area and sexually abused her. "I came home and never spoke of the moment to my siblings or Mum."

I was brought into Homes of Hope in 2020 and stayed for three years. I received emotional support and help to get through the trauma I had been through. The counselling built my confidence and taught me how to express my emotions.

I saw a lot of changes in myself during my time. I was strengthened emotionally and physically. We did self-defence classes online. I also learnt basic life skills like sewing, farming, baking and cooking. Homes of Hope supported me throughout school. I cannot find the words to express how grateful I am.

Homes of Hope for me is a second home. This is a home that I will never forget had my back. And they still do. They made me who I am today. I cannot change the past, I’ve learned to live with it, and I feel excited for the future.

 

Homes of Hope running their Thumbs Up programme with the children from Waicoka Village. Credit: Tearfund New Zealand

 

Another area Homes of Hope works in is the prevention of human trafficking and exploitation. They run awareness initiatives in villages, churches and schools. Children learn about good touch and bad touch and that private parts should remain private.

Men and women learn about what human trafficking and sexual exploitation are and how to respond. They also learn how to provide wrap-around support services to victims.

If a woman or girl is sexually exploited in Fiji, the stigma and shame are huge. Often, the woman is told she’s a liar, and that it’s her fault. She is often kicked out of home and ostracized by her family and community. Homes of Hope's victim-centred approach is breaking down barriers and cultural norms.

 

Homes of Hope running an awareness training with the men and women from Vatoa Village. Credit: Tearfund New Zealand

 

But their work doesn’t stop there. While I was in Fiji, Homes of Hope was hosting a conference with key government stakeholders and not-for-profit organisations. Our partner is releasing an awareness toolkit throughout the country to shine a spotlight on this issue.

I spoke with the Department of Immigration, the Ministry of Employment, an investigator in the Human Trafficking Unit in Fiji’s Police Force, NGOs, a Reverend that represents 375,000 Christians from different denominations in Fiji, and one of the only prosecutors to secure a conviction against a human trafficker.

 

Speaking with Daniel Tagivakatini from the Ministry of Employment. Credit: Tearfund New Zealand

 

They all told us awareness and weak legislation were two of the biggest challenges in Fiji’s fight against human trafficking.

Rosi a Compliance Investigation Officer from Fiji’s Immigration Department said the government had never had any awareness of human trafficking before Homes of Hope highlighted the issue.

Reverend Simione from The Fiji Council for Churches said he used to think the government wasn’t interested in this issue, but now it’s top of their agenda.

Veniana from the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) said Homes of Hope’s model is one of the most successful ones across the Pacific.

Key government stakeholders and NGOs are forming a united front. Awareness is growing, the issue is front of mind at government level, and more cases are being brought to court.

Why? Because Homes of Hope did the groundwork. They built a solid foundation and reputation in Fiji, gathered influential players in this space and highlighted the issue of human trafficking.

Homes of Hope knew they could not fight this alone. Now, with the support of movers and shakers in Fiji, they can create long-lasting change.

Inspired by the work we are doing in Fiji? Wait until you hear about what we are up to in the Solomon Islands.

 

Interested in supporting Tearfund’s work in the Asia-Pacific region?

Donate today

 

Ola Fou & Hope Trust, Solomon Islands

Logging, mining and fishing are major industries in the Solomon Islands. They are also industries where trafficking and exploitation are rife. In these industries, women and girls are forced into marriage, people are exploited for their labour and others are forced into commercial sexual exploitation.

Poverty is a major factor in making people vulnerable to exploitation. Families don’t have the money for food or school fees, they see the only way to survive is by selling their sons or daughters.

Our partners Ola Fou and Hope Trust, work together to fight human trafficking in the Solomon Islands, while also improving rural livelihoods. They work in eight communities throughout the Islands.

 

A couple of girls from Obo Obo Village, One of the communities Ola Fou works in. Credit: Tearfund New Zealand

 

Ola Fou focuses on youth development, community development and agriculture to help families and communities become self-reliant.

More than 70% of the population in the Solomon Islands is under the age of 34. There aren’t a lot of opportunities for young people after they leave high school, so youth unemployment is very high. Ola Fou sees agriculture as an important avenue youth and others in the community can engage in.

Most Solomon Islanders are farmers in their own right, but Ola Fou provides them with the correct tools and training to produce better quality crops so they can provide for their families and sell high-quality produce at the market. I heard stories of people’s taro doubling in size!

These farming and agriculture initiatives are teaching communities to be economically empowered so people don’t have to look for risky work or exploit their children to survive.

Luke is a graduate of Ola Fou’s training programme. Over the 15-month course, Ola Fou staff saw a huge improvement in him.

 

Luke from Kolosulu Village tending to his garden. Credit: Tearfund New Zealand

 

I was shy and had low self-worth before I started the programme. But I developed self-confidence and now have a positive self-image and belief in myself.

I have seen the benefits of doing agricultural training already. I learnt how to plant crops like taro, peanuts, ginger, chilli and spring onion to provide for my family and to sell at the market. I also learnt how to make use of available materials to make compost and fertiliser. My family and I now receive a consistent income.

Having the opportunity to access new ideas, has gradually raised the standard of living in my community. I am now more prepared to approach my future and can help others to do the same.

Ola Fou also teaches financial literacy, runs first-aid training and disaster preparedness workshops, provided water tanks and sanitation blocks, and helped communities to produce their own by-laws. Some villages are so remote, that the police only visit twice a year.

Hope Trust run awareness initiatives in communities and in schools, teaching about human trafficking and sexual exploitation. Sex subjects are a taboo topic in the Solomons, so Hope Trust is encouraging people to speak up and break the culture of silence.

They also provide counselling services to the victims and offer support to local law enforcement.

Human trafficking awareness initiatives and community development are having a considerable impact in the Pacific. It’s shining a light on humanity at its worst in the hopes that perpetrators will be brought to justice and its equipping people with the tools to build a better, safer future.

 

Safe, Aware, Free, Empowered (SAFE) Programme

The projects I visited are part of our SAFE Programme. SAFE is a five-year multi-million dollar partnership with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT). It aims to improve rural livelihoods and protect vulnerable communities from human trafficking, abuse and exploitation. The SAFE programme operates in five countries, the Solomon Islands, Fiji, Vanuatu, Sri Lanka and Myanmar (from 2024), weaving together our expertise in Farming and Enterprise and Modern Slavery initiatives. The SAFE programme aims to benefit more than 20,000 people and indirectly impact more than 80,000.

Coupling improved rural income programmes with anti-human trafficking and exploitation strategies is effectively reducing people’s vulnerability to exploitation in the Asia-Pacific region.

 

Interested in supporting Tearfund’s work in the Asia-Pacific region?

Donate today

 

 

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