Communications with our TutelaMinorum member on the South Pacific Ocean island of Tonga has always been a challenge. Through sporadic emails and crackly phone calls in between hurricanes, floods and power outages, Sinalaela Fe’Ao keeps us updated on her work in child abuse prevention among the cultures and populations of the wider south pacific island chain.
So it was serendipitous that on March 8, International Women’s Day, a long awaited email arrived into the office inbox, announcing the culmination of years of tireless listening, adaptation and inculturation of outreach and safeguarding structures into her particular local context.
“Just to share with you … the newly developed college program, very much with the support of Cardinal Mafi of the Diocese of Tonga and Niue” she wrote. The program, she continued “will provide counselling and life formation for girls and women.” But not all girls and women. This is a course for girls and young women who were victims/survivors of violence and abuse in their own home or village environment by people they know or family members.
Through her work in building safe environments in pre-schools, schools, and colleges, Sinalelea was made aware of the need to extend the educational and awareness efforts among the wider community to the villages and municipalities. She knew that issues such as stigma as well as local cultural mores impact greatly on the disclosure of abuse in the particular context of the Polynesian islands.
Sinalelea began by offering counselling services, establishing safe spaces in schools and communities, for people to come and share their stories in a context of complete confidentiality. This process allowed her and her colleagues to identify vulnerable girls and women, victims of abuse or at risk of violence and abuse.
“These young vulnerable women are being identified in the counselling program of the college,” she says “In turn, the local church is providing them counselling and life formation, so they pick up life once again and move on. Another teacher and myself are running the program during the course of two years of their studies “
In a sign of solidarity and support for this new step in creating a culture of safeguarding, the bishop of the local diocese of Tonga and Niue, Cardinal Soane Patita Paini Mafi, opened up the old Bishop’s Residence for the college programme. A safe place for women in need.