Kiwi organisation takes on human trafficking in the Pacific Islands

Meet the Kiwi organisation and the local heroes on the frontlines working to expose human trafficking in the Pacific Islands.

The Pacific islands are known to most Kiwis as an island paradise. An idyllic holiday destination with snorkelling, fancy resorts, pristine blue water, sunny skies and friendly locals. They certainly were to me.

But on a recent trip for work, I discovered another side of the picture-perfect postcard – a serious and growing problem. Human trafficking and sexual exploitation.

What do I do for a job? I’m glad you asked. I’m a communications specialist with Tearfund New Zealand. One of the Kiwi organisations working hard alongside some incredible locals to fight the fastest growing criminal industry on the planet.

Shirley, Susan, Lavenia (left to right) from SLS Legal in Fiji.


First, let me introduce you to three remarkable Fijian lawyers seeking justice for victims by putting perpetrators in prison.

These three women, all under the age of 35, Susan Serukai, Shirley Tivao and Lavenia Bogitini, are former prosecutors and have just opened their own law firm, SLS Legal, in Fiji’s capital, Suva.

“During our time as prosecutors we worked on cases including general crime, human trafficking, sexual offences, murder and illicit drugs, to name a few,” says Serukai. “Starting a law firm, particularly at our age, is a significant achievement for women.”

Tivao and Bogitini are the second prosecutors to ever secure a conviction against a human trafficker in Fiji.

“There have only ever been seven prosecuted cases, five of which were successful. That is a far bigger number compared to other Pacific nations,” says Bogitini.

Tivao and Bogitini worked on a case where a 15-year-old girl was trafficked by a man preying on her innocence.

The trafficker invited her out to dinner, gained her trust and paid for her transport to Rewa Street, a red-light district in Suva.

He acted as her pimp and forced her to have sex with men. He would groom her, do her make-up, ask her to wear short skirts and tight tops to gain attention and make her look older.

If the girl didn’t follow his orders, he and his friends threatened her with sexual assault. She was treated like a slave and feared for her safety.

After a few days, a police officer found her by a nightclub, he was concerned about her age and took her in to the local police station.

The man was arrested and found guilty of domestic trafficking involving a child. He is now in prison and faces a 14-year sentence.

“At that point in time, she did not know she was being trafficked. The concept of consent was not known. She would get a bit of money and she needed that money to support her family,” csays Tivao.

“Since her case was exposed, we are seeing more being brought before the system. Three prosecuted this year. One of the main reasons is there has been an increased awareness.”

Awareness of these issues is being funded by Kiwi donations and the New Zealand Government. Organisations like Tearfund New Zealand’s local partner, Homes of Hope are leading the charge.

Homes of Hope is a restorative care shelter and training facility for survivors of sexual abuse and human trafficking.

Survivors as young as 11-years-old come to the home to recover with the help of counsellors, social workers and a community of women who have been through similar experiences.

The residents learn valuable life skills like sewing, baking, cooking, housekeeping, farming and agriculture.

Once 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.

They aren’t just the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, but the fence at the top, stopping women and girls from being sexually exploited.

Tearfund’s partner runs awareness initiatives in villages, churches and schools. Teaching people what human trafficking and sexual exploitation is, how to report it and how to provide wrap-around support for the victim.

If a woman or girl is sexually abused in Fiji, the stigma and shame is huge. Often, the woman is told that it’s her fault. Homes of Hope’s survivor-centred approach is breaking down barriers and cultural norms.

But their work doesn’t stop there. Homes of Hope has created a human trafficking task force made up of all the key government stakeholders, religious institutions and not-for-profit organisations. With feedback from all parties, they have created an awareness toolkit that is being released nationwide to shine a spotlight on this issue.

Bogitini says, “It used to be a foreign concept, but now they see it as an issue right on their doorstep.”

Two girls from Obo Obo village in The Solomons, one of the communities Tearfund is working in.

Solomon Islands

In the Solomons, fishing, mining and logging are major industries where trafficking is rife. Women and girls are forced into marriage, people are exploited for their labour and othersare forced into commercial sexual exploitation. Unfortunately, family members are often the unintentional facilitators.

I learned that poverty is a major factor in making people vulnerable to exploitation. Families don’t have the money for food or school fees and so out of desperation they look the other way and sell one son or daughter to help provide for the rest.

Tearfund’s partners, Ola Fou and Hope Trust, also funded by Kiwi donations and the New Zealand Government, work together to fight human trafficking in the Solomon Islands, while also improving rural livelihoods. They work in eight communities throughout the Islands.

“More than 70 per cent 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,” says Hope Trust director, Prema Maeato.

Ola Fou sees agriculture as an important avenue youth and others in the community can engage in.

“Most Solomon Islanders are farmers, 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,” says Elisha Paza Pitanoe, country director of Ola Fou.

These initiatives are teaching communities to be economically empowered so they don’t have to exploit their children to survive.

Luke Junior is a graduate of Ola Fou’s training programme.

“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. My family and I now receive a consistent income,” says Junior.

“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 and provides water tanks and sanitation blocks.

Hope Trust run awareness initiatives in communities and schools.

“Sex subjects are a taboo topic in the Solomons, so Hope Trust is encouraging people to speak up and break the culture of silence,” says Maeato.

“We also provide counselling services to victims, offer support to local law enforcement, and help communities to produce their own by-laws. Some villages are so remote, the police only visit twice a year.”

Human trafficking awareness initiatives and community development are having a considerable positive impact in the Pacific. Here’s to that.

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