Celebrating three decades of Strengthening Pacific Women

In late 2019 the Pacific Island Women’s Refuge (PIWR) celebrated 30 years of helping Pacific women, children and families from violence and sexual abuse. Its longevity is symbolic of its strength, with a small, courageous and capable team striving to meet the needs of those most vulnerable safely and culturally, ensuring no one is left behind. 


As the new decade dawned, the refuge continues to make strides and evolve to reflect the growing diversity of their team for an increasingly diverse clientele. It does so while further expanding their ability to aid and educate families alongside, ensuring the safety of women and children.

PIWR coordinator Ani Vahua (pictured left) recalls the beginning from a small group of strong women who saw a big need for a Pacific women’s refuge.

Together with family advocate Theresa Peto (pictured front right) and admin family advocate Tania Petelo (back right), the trio are the multitasking force in keeping women and children safe. 

As its only full-time staff, the trio know it’s important maintain their passion, as their work in protecting vulnerable women isn’t easy. 

PIWR provides a 24-hour crisis intervention service for women and children experiencing family violence and abuse. PIWR has emergency accommodation, support, advocacy, telephone counselling and community programmes. It also assists in setting up families in their respective communities, keeping women and children safe and building their confidence and knowledge through community education programmes.

For Tania, a Wellington-born Cook Islander, Whanau Protect sees them “going out and setting the Whānau Protect alarms and making people more aware of refuge services, because safety alarms are different in that they’re linked to the police, which gives women and children some safety in their home without going to a refuge.”

PIWR staff make a point to accommodate as many as possible women from all Pacific nations.

“If we don’t have anyone to work with someone from a particular ethnicity, we ask them if it’s okay that we call someone from the community to help,” says Ani.

“If it’s okay, then great. If not, we’ll figure out another plan. There has always got to be a Plan A, B and C to keep the client safe.”

It’s all part and parcel of a career that spans for almost three decades, with Ani adding that “to last somewhere like this requires passion and patience.”

It wasn’t an easy start. Ani admits PIWR wasn’t seen as a popular place to volunteer for work at, but adds that “even though it’s not always a happy job, happiness often emerges as a result of our work with people.”

Ani was the third coordinator to join in 1992. A proud Cook Islander from Avarua in Rarotonga, her welcoming nature instantly puts you at ease. It’s a quality genuinely appreciated by the women and children she helps every day, although that wasn’t always the case.

“We were called home wreckers, breaking families and relationships,” she recalls.

“In reality, these families were already broken before we picked them up. But it’s not what the families recognised at the time. We needed to face all of those challenges and turn it around and raise an awareness of what we do and who we work with.”

Ani says PIWR, which has worked closely with Pasefika Proud throughout the past decade, does more than protect women who have suffered family violence. The team build strong Pacific families, preventing and addressing violence and changing attitudes and behaviour through their work with women and children, youth and families.

Sheltering battered women and children has expanded to include men, says Samoan family advocate, Theresa.

“When it comes to families, we don’t just work with women, we work with men as well, especially with education about family violence prevention, which has been successful,” she says.

“The education around us and being part of the Nga Vaka o Kainga Tapu strengthened that. It’s an improvement to an already supportive service, working with our men and the community to include the whole family. We’re more than a women’s refuge that houses battered women and their children,” Ani says defiantly.

“We do everything we say we do according to our Service Contracts, and they are: 24hrs Crisis Line, Residential, Community, Family Centred, Whanau Protect and Pacific Heat (Youth).”

As the trio reflect on their work, Ani commemorates that “all those who have contributed to the refuge that are no longer with us, will never be forgotten”.    

Get Help

If you or anyone you know are experiencing Family and Domestic Violence and would like to talk to someone24 hrs, please call or contact Ani Vahua, Theresa Peto and Tania Petelo on 0800 733 843, 09 634 4662 or email address is p.i.w.r@xtra.co.nz.

If it is an emergency call 111. 

Pasefika Proud is a Pacific response to focus on community-led solutions that harnesses the transformative power of traditional Pacific cultural values and frameworks to encourage violence-free, respectful relationships that support Pacific peoples to thrive and to build strong resilient families.