Pacific Islands Women’s Health Project Aotearoa

1983 –

Pacific Islands Women’s Health Project Aotearoa

1983 –

Theme: Immigration and ethnicity

Known as:

  • Pacific Islands Women’s Project Aotearoa
    1983 - c.1993
  • Pacific Islands Women’s Health Project Aotearoa
    c.1993 -

This essay written by Carmel Peteru was first published in Women Together: a History of Women's Organisations in New Zealand in 1993. It was updated by Moeata Keil in 2018.

1983 – 1993

The Pacific Islands Women's Project Aotearoa (PIWP), as it was originally called, was a national umbrella for Pacific women's groups working in the field of family violence and sexual abuse. Its central philosophy was the empowerment of Pacific women, families and communities. In 1992 there were twelve member groups, run by over 100 paid workers and volunteers. [1]

PIWP always maintained that Pacific people were the most appropriate and best skilled to make decisions and develop initiatives promoting their families' welfare. PIWP provided culturally appropriate support for these initiatives, including resources, skills training, and help in developing educational programmes at regional and national level.

In September 1983, at a Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) conference on Sexual Violence to Women and Children held in Wellington, the Pacific participants called for the creation of a full-time position for a Pacific woman to work in the area of family violence and sexual abuse. In May 1984 the YWCA appointed Carmel Peteru, who worked with her supervisory/support group and a core YWCA group to form the Pacific Islands Women's Project, based in Wellington.

Peteru's role was to liaise with community groups and government agencies, including PACIFICA, the Pacific Islands Resource Centre, Rape Crisis, the Pacific YWCAs, and the newly formed Ministries of Women's Affairs and Pacific Island Affairs. She also researched and collated material on initiatives undertaken within Pacific communities; monitored government policies affecting Pacific women and their families; and helped implement changes within the YWCA of New Zealand to enable wider and more appropriate participation by Pacific women.

The next step was to develop a network of case workers within Pacific communities. In 1984 Betty Sio, who had considerable experience in this area, was appointed. Later that year the first of the regional member groups, the Wellington Women's Project, was established under Sio; it was followed by the Auckland Central Pacific Islands Women's Health Project in 1985.

As more groups, including Dunedin, Hamilton, Gisborne, and Porirua, affiliated to PIWP, the need to co-ordinate regional initiatives became apparent, and a national office was established in 1986. The Department of Social Welfare's Rape and Sexual Abuse Fund became PIWP's major income source, enabling it to appoint a national co-ordinator, administrator and office manager.

The national office provided resources and information to member groups, lobbied government departments and other agencies for assistance with PlWP's work, and made applications to national funding organisations on the groups' behalf. Staff were supported and directed in their work by the National Project Komiti Fono, comprising representatives from each of the twelve member groups.

In all the regional groups, the few paid workers and the volunteers worked collectively as administrators, counsellors, advisers, networkers and mothers. Most had other jobs and commitments, the volunteers for example doing similar work for other community groups. Counselling was mainly done in the evening, much of it by the volunteers. For many women, it was a 24 hours, seven days a week job.

PIWP did considerable pioneering work in its training and educational programmes. These included education packages on abuse for local colleges; preventative education courses for Pacific students; working with government departments on Pacific protocol and language interpretation; and creating appropriate resources to raise awareness of family violence. Training of PIWP workers covered cultural awareness, counselling skills, sex awareness, women's roles, and spirituality.

After six years of support from the YWCA, PIWP was able to become autonomous, and was incorporated in 1989. In 1990, research on behalf of the Department of Social Welfare to assess the project's work identified it as the major Pacific group working in the field, and attributed its growth to its philosophy of empowerment and of appropriate models of working.

In 1992 PIWP had about 1000 members and supporters, most of them Pacific women, although its supporters also included Pacific men. The organisation always recognised the need to address the issues of violence surrounding Pacific men, and achieved this by networking with Pacific Men Against Violence groups.

From 1983, PIWP saw changes of direction which reflected the social context, new women coming into the organisation, and the demands of funding criteria. PIWP had to resolve the inevitable conflicts arising from the profusion of women's ideals and visions, limited resources, overwork, and the stressful demands of the job. Other challenges included insufficient funding to develop more effective programmes, and difficulties in creating an efficient referral process for counselling and support between some regional groups and government departments.

The 1990s brought new pressures: 'With increases in violence, unemployment, health cuts and benefit cuts, the pressures of every day living [are] causing a lot of stress and tension within the community. The Pacific Islands Women's Project must be prepared for an increasing workload . . .' [2]

PIWP developed into a dynamic and empowering resource for Pacific women. It slowly broke into a very silent and sensitive area in their communities, where ten years earlier the subject of sexual abuse was never even broached. Women are the mainstay of Pacific families and communities, and their hard work, sacrifices and commitment enabled PIWP to work toward its goal of eliminating family violence and sexual abuse.

Carmel Peteru

1994 – 2018

Early in this period the Pacific Islands Women’s Project became the Pacific Islands Women’s Health Project (PIWHP). It developed to offer services in counselling, advocacy, crisis lines and call out, and worked closely with health practitioners, government agencies and other community service providers to provide pastoral care for women and children [3].

It also established a residential care service (fale mafana) for children who had experienced abuse and/or neglect. The children catered for included girls aged 0–17 and boys aged 0–12. In 1995, PIWHP received funding to establish and facilitate a sexual abuse counselling and training programme. This programme was administered in 1996 and 1997 in partnership with the Auckland College of Education.

Vaoga Lelefua Mary Watts receiving award from GG

The Governor-General of New Zealand

In 2008 Vaoga Lelefua Mary Watts was awarded the Queen's Service Medal for her services to the Pacific Island community. Watts helped set up the Pacific Islands Women’s Project Aotearoa, and was a founding member of the Fale Malu Pasefika Women’s Refuge. She is shown here with the Governor-General, Rt Hon. Sir Anand Satyanand, GNZM, QSO, after receiving her award.

By 2018 PIWHP operated from a model of empowerment, recognising that abuse is about power. As such, PIWHP transformed its institutional structure and practice from a hierarchical organisational model (with managers) to a ‘flat’ model emphasising the role, responsibility and accountability of each member to the group, valuing individuals with community and experiential knowledge as much as those with formal qualifications [4].

Moeata Keil


[1] Member groups in 1993 were Ala Mai Project (Christchurch), Gisborne Women's Project, Hamilton Women's Project, Kahoa Tauleva Trust (Okaihau), Kainga and Community Resource Centre, Lower Hutt Women's Project, Mapu I Manuwera (South Auckland), Pacific Islands Women's Health Project (Auckland Central), Porirua Pacific Islands Stop Abuse, Tokoroa Women's Project, Tongan Women's Association, and West Auckland Women's Project.

[2] Alvina Napier (PIWP National Project Manager), PIWP newsletter, 1992.

[3] Tiatia, 2008.

[4] McPhillips et al., 2002.

Unpublished sources

Peteru, Carmel, interviews with Alvina Napier, Fa'amata Laumalilu, Sina Umaga, 1992

Pacific Islands Women's Project Aotearoa records, 1983–1992, PIWP National Office, Wellington

Published sources

Kingi, Pefi (ed.), Pacific Islands Women's Project, PIWP, Auckland, 1990

Kingi, Pefi (ed.), Growth Research: A Report for Head Office, Department of Social Welfare, PIWP, Wellington, 1991

McPhillips, Kathryn, Sue Berman, Epenesa Olo-Whaanga, and Kirsty McCully,  Preventing Sexual Violence: A Vision for Auckland/Tamaki Makaurau, Report presented to ACC by Auckland Sexual Abuse HELP, 2002

Tiatia, Jemaima, Sexual Violence and Pacific Communities Scoping Report, Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs, September 2008

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