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Making memories . . . Many pupils at Catholic secondary school St John's College confided in Nicole Lowen when she volunteered there as a teacher. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

Fiji has one of the highest rates of domestic and sexual violence in the world; almost two-thirds of its women experience one or the other during their lifetime. Nicole Lowen was confronted by the problem while volunteering at a Fijian secondary school and set out to help make a difference for the next generation of island women. The former Waitaki Girls’ High School pupil talks to Oamaru Mail editor Rebecca Ryan about her experience.

When Nicole Lowen left Waitaki Girls’ High School last year she was looking for a challenge, but she had no idea volunteering as a teacher in Fiji would lead her to become a campaigner for vulnerable women in abusive relationships.

Miss Lowen (18) has recently returned to New Zealand after spending six months volunteering at a remote secondary school on the Fijian island of Ovalau.

“I always wanted to volunteer somewhere and I guess I chose Fiji because I love the different cultures in Oamaru – I’ve spent so much time with my friends from Tonga, Samoa and all the different Pacific islands,” she said.

But outside the main tourist centre of Fiji, she soon discovered a culture of violence and mental health issues.

When she was teaching at Catholic secondary school St John’s College, she would regularly hear stories of domestic violence, corporal punishment, child abuse and suicide.

And after she saw the effect of an assault on a woman she knew, she was shocked no-one else showed any concern or empathy.

“If we talked about it with people in the village they would say ‘she’s obviously done something wrong, she needs to apologise to him’ and that ‘it was all her fault’.”

Any attempts to discuss the prevalence of domestic violence in Fiji with the older generation were dismissed.

But Miss Lowen saw an opportunity to raise awareness with the younger generation.

“I’d become quite close with the younger students at the school I was teaching at,” she said. “What they talked to me about sometimes made me think I could make a difference for them.”

When Miss Lowen was a year 12 pupil at Waitaki Girls’ High School, she took part in the Loves-Me-Not programme, developed by the Sophie Elliott Foundation with the New Zealand Police and Ministry of Social Development.

She contacted Sophie Elliott Foundation trustee Bill O’Brien to discuss the possibility of introducing the programme at her school in Fiji and was given resources to do so by Oamaru police school community officer Carrie Hamilton.

The topics of domestic violence and mental health had never been discussed in classes at the school but the principal was excited for Miss Lowen to introduce it to the pupils.

In New Zealand, the Loves-Me-Not programme is designed for year 12 pupils as the appropriate age to discuss relationship abuse and to start to take action for change. In the Waitaki district, it is delivered at Waitaki Boys’ and Waitaki Girls’ High Schools, St Kevin’s College and East Otago High School.

But with only a short window to make an impact, Miss Lowen decided to present it to all year groups and adapted it to suit each one.

Another volunteer at the school was a trained counsellor and helped her take the classes.

She faced some resistance from some of the older pupils, but the overwhelming response to the classes was positive and most of the 600 pupils at the school went through the programme with her.

They showed a genuine interest and understanding of some of the situations they witnessed, and sometimes were a part of.

“The younger classes really surprised me .. they came back with really good answers about things you wouldn’t think they’d understand.”

In a year 11 class, she asked pupils to raise their hand if they had heard or seen neighbours or family members physically or verbally abusing each other.

“The majority would put their hands up,” she said.

Suicide and mental health issues were also rife and the classes became quite emotional as pupils discussed their experiences with Miss Lowen.

It was unlikely the programme would continue at the school, but she took some comfort in knowing she had made a difference in her short time there.

“It was one of my main goals to do that and it makes it feel like I’ve achieved it,” she said.

She hoped they could start pushing past the acceptance of domestic violence and create change in relationships.

Const Hamilton, who runs the Loves-Me-Not programme in North Otago, said Nicole’s story epitomised the Loves-Me-Not approach.

“It’s just great that [Nicole’s] been able to use what she learned when the programme was delivered at Waitaki Girls’,” she said.

“The last part of the Loves-Me-Not programme is focused on how students can take the messages that they have learned to make positive change in our community, so it’s so pleasing to see that Nicole has been able to take these messages .. and made some positive changes over in Fiji, by spreading what she has learned about healthy relationships over there.”

Day-to-day living was tough on Miss Lowen, too, but she said she was a lot stronger for the experience.

For the first three months she was placed at a convent at the school under the supervision of two nuns, who cared for the female boarding pupils.

“The three months I was there with them was mentally draining,” she said.

when they did talk to me it was because they wanted me to do something, or they didn’t like the way I’d done something.

“They’d yell at me, and they had no interest in what I was doing or who I was .. they were very unkind.

“When I sit back and reflect back on it, it was, at times, like a mentally and sometimes verbally abusive relationship with these two sisters.”

But she would do it again in a heartbeat.

“I learned so much and I’ve definitely become a stronger person.

“You don’t realise how strong you are until the only option you have is to be strong – and I think that’s probably how I got through these things.

“It was heaven and hell – I went through the most crazy and unfair situations I shouldn’t have been put through, but I would still go back and I’d love to volunteer somewhere else overseas.”