Survivors of domestic violence (DV) and gender-based violence (GBV) in Tonga are being encouraged and assisted with an online portal to make their decisions to access justice. The Tonga Family Protection Legal Aid Centre (FPLAC) in partnership with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) is developing an online portal to enable DV and GBV survivors to access legal information and reporting mechanism.
The online portal will enable survivors to anonymously obtain information on relevant laws and mechanism, establish safety plans and reach out to report family violence and other issues directly to FPLAC. Survivors will be able to do so remotely, without the need to travel to and from the FPLAC office located in Nukuʻalofa, the capital of Tonga on the main island of Tongatapu. For FPLAC, Tonga’s first national legal aid institution providing free legal advice and representation relating to family violence which primarily serves female survivors of family violence, the platform will allow its officers to reach out potential clients and provide remote legal counsels and referrals. This will be one of the first integrated legal aid and GBV response digital platform globally.
This year, Tonga has faced the double-whammy hit of the COVID-19 economic downturn and the impacts of Severe Tropical Cyclone Harold which levelled many villages in the country. Globally, it has been observed that in the aftermath of natural disasters, violence against women spikes, while COVID-19 has this year likewise seen significant increases in rates of violence, with dangers enhanced due to movement restrictions. The FPLAC digital justice support initiative will contribute to more inclusive response and establishment of more resilient service delivery system.
FPLAC recently held a consultation on 30 and 31 October 2020, with its key service providers and stakeholders to identify the key information and ways to interact with the users effectively on the online portal. It was attended by their Excellences – High Commissioner of Australia and High Commissioner of New Zealand, Lady Catherine Whitten, Ms. Temaleti Manakovi A. Pahulu, Chief Executive Officer of the Ministry of Justice, government and civil society service providers, youth and women’s and girls’ rights groups. The result of the consultation will inform the ICT firm to design the digital application to ensure the user-centric interface with data privacy and confidentiality of users being paramount.
Ms Fitilagi Fa’anunu, Director of the FPLAC said, “I am very thrilled with this digital platform development to provide legal assistance to DV and GBV survivors. FPLAC has been aware that in community environment, where fellow members are in close relationships with each other, women face immense social pressures and stigma in talking about domestic violence – whether in person, or by phone. Survivors and their families may hesitate to contact the FPLAC as they are anxious about community members who may come to know about their problems because Tonga is so small.”
“The online information and reporting portal will allow us to assist DV and GBV survivors with legal information and counselling online from FPLAC’s key partners without compromising the protection of confidentiality of the cases. We aim that through the process using the digital platform, survivors will be empowered to make their own safety plans, access justice and re-establish their lives,” she added.
The FPLAC was established as a pilot project in 2018 under the Ministry of Justice as a joint initiative with the Pacific Community (SPC) through its Regional Rights Resource Team (RRRT). It is the first of its kind in the Pacific, established specifically to assist DV and GBV survivors and provide quality free legal assistance to survivors. The pilot period (2018-2019) saw a total of 368 clients seeking legal assistance from the FPLAC and 268 were eligible for the free legal service.
In 2019, the FPLAC took part in the Rights, Empowerment and Cohesion Program (REACH) mobile service delivery programme, co-funded by UNDP and UN Women. Through the REACH integrated service delivery platform government and civil society organizations travelled as a team to remote communities, conducted awareness raising programmes and delivered various public services directly to community members at their doorsteps, including remote island communities in Vava’u, ‘Eua and Ha’apai. The REACH platform significantly contributed to the expansion of FPLAC’s capacity for awareness raising and service delivery to remote communities in Tonga.
The FPLAC digital justice support initiative is based on the earlier study which presented that Tonga’s outer islands have relatively good internet coverage and women in communities have been strong mobile smartphone users. However, being aware of the digital gap and divide marginalized groups are experiencing, the FPLAC continues strengthening its physical outreach through the REACH mobile integrated service delivery platform, while advocating for policies and programmes that aim to make technology more accessible to marginalized groups.
Mr Levan Bouadze, Resident Representative of the UNDP Pacific Office in Fiji said, “UNDP is pleased to see the development of the digital service delivery evolved from the REACH integrated service delivery programme in Tonga. I fully support this initiative taken by the FPLAC which will assist DV and GBV survivors to access justice.”
Empowering the DV and GBV survivors to access justice and restore their human rights, the FPLAC digital justice support initiative aims to contribute to achieving Tonga’s Sustainable Development Goals with focus on Goal 5: gender equality and empowerment of all women and girls and Goal 16: peace, justice and strong institutions.