An unexpected visit sparked a glimmer of hope during a dark time in Arihi’s life. She is now an empowered survivor of domestic violence who knows her rights and how to access financial and legal services.
Arihi, not her real name, is a single mother of three children living in a remote community in the Kingdom of Tonga. She experienced domestic violence at the hands of her former husband and, after divorcing him, she remained wary of his abusive nature and proximity while working hard to earn enough to support and raise their children.
It was a difficult time. Arihi, her parents and her siblings had felt extremely uncertain about how to improve the situation until there was an unexpected visit in her rural community by officers from the Tonga Family Protection Legal Aid Centre.
The Legal Aid officers spoke with Arihi and other members of the community on legal rights of citizens and legal services that the Legal Aid can offer. It was an opportunity for Arihi to share her dire situation to the officers. She learned her legal rights and the specific legal actions to take. Based on that knowledge, she decided that legal action was the best way to deal with her situation, for both herself and her children. The experience was eye-opening for her.
The visit by the Legal Aid officers was part of a ‘mobile awareness raising and service delivery’ initiative conducted by various government agencies as a ‘mobile team’. The REACH initiative has piloted its mobile service delivery approach in Tonga and Samoa led by the respective governments with financial and technical support from UN Women and the UN Development Programme.
In Tonga, its REACH team of government services travelled village to village in remote areas to explain the people’s social, economic and legal rights as citizens of Tonga and provided personalized services on a case by case basis.
During the ten-day ‘mobile awareness raising and service delivery’ in Tonga, 2,715 services were provided individually (1,683 to women, 1005 to men, 23 to children and four to persons with disabilities) in 17 communities in Tongatapu and ‘Eua Islands.
The team included officers from the Ministries of Trade and Economic Development, the Palace Office, multiple divisions of the Ministry for Internal Affairs including the Women’s Affairs Division, the Office of the Ombudsman and the Ministry of Justice including its affiliate – the Tonga Family Protection Legal Aid Center.
Arihi is one of hundreds of gender-based violence survivors assisted by the Tonga Family Protection Legal Aid Center over the past year of which nine in every ten are women – 93 per cent of the 268 survivors supported were women seeking legal advice or legal assistance including representation in court for themselves and sometimes their children.
“The Tonga Family Protection Legal Aid Centre provides free legal aid services to survivors of domestic and gender-based violence that includes women, men and children,” said the Centre’s Director Ms. Fitilagi Faanunu.
She added, “We work closely with the Police, Crisis Centers, the Ministry of Health, the Courts as well as other agencies who are part of the referral network.”
A study conducted in Tonga in 2009 revealed that more than three out of four (77 percent) women in Tonga have experienced physical or sexual violence in their lives by someone, either partners or non-partners. And a staggering 75 percent of women survivors never sought help from formal services or people in authority. Those that did, was usually when the violence was so severe that it was reported via hospital and health services (12 percent), police (12 percent), or religious leaders (8 percent).
The study further identified that social networks surrounding women often reinforce a stigma of shame around gender-based violence with social norms often incorrectly blaming the women or encouraging her to endure the crime.
This was the case for Arihi but now she understands that domestic violence is never the fault of the survivor and the blame must be placed on the perpetrator who commits the crime.
“I could not seek assistance because I didn’t know who to ask for assistance and what support services are available aside from reporting to the police. My parents were not supportive of me reporting to the police. Other people’s views mattered to them and it would not be good if others found out about our problems,” explained Arihi.
She added, “It is crucial for people like me to be approached by the government proactively so that we can apply for services.”
Shortly after the visit by the REACH mobile team, Arihi was granted a Temporary Protection Order (TPO) and a Maintenance Order under the Family Protection Act.
The TPO has made her feel safer while the maintenance order obliges the father to provide weekly financial contributions to her for an initial three months to ensure she is able to raise their three children as a single mother.
The Tonga Family Protection Legal Aid Centre continues to monitor her case for any breach of the order and to provide further legal assistance if required, including an application for permanent maintenance before the TPO expires.
In Tonga, Arihi was just one of the many people living in remote, rural and maritime communities who benefited during the pilot initiative that provided information about social services available to citizens including youth programmes, registration for labour mobility and seasonal workers scheme, women’s livelihood assessments and microenterprise, community development grant, registration for the Electoral Roll, national ID, family protection, legal aid and police services, support services for women, men and families, while also receiving information about citizens’ rights and gender equality.
The REACH pilot initiative, adapting a successful model implemented in Fiji, develops an integrated government platform to provide knowledge and awareness raising, and to deliver government services to remote and vulnerable populations in Samoa and Tonga. It aims to enhance citizens’ access to justice, women and family services, and government services with a focus on the populations whose access may be limited such as persons with disabilities, gender-based violence survivors, older persons and people in remote communities.
The REACH pilot initiative aims to contribute to Tonga’s achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals. Among the 17 Goals, the initiative focuses on Goal 16 which is a commitment to promoting peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, providing access to justice for all and building effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels; and Goal 5 which is a commitment to achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls.
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Jacqui Berrell, Communications Specialist, UN Women Fiji Multi-Country Office, tel.: +679 330 1178, ext. 125, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
 Ma`a Fafine mo e Famili Inc., National Study on Domestic Violence against Women in Tonga 2009 NOFO ‘A KAINGA (Tonga, 2012) https://pacific.unfpa.org/sites/default/files/pub-pdf/tonga-vaw-report-final-2012.pdf (Accessed on 13 June 2019)