A group of five from the Church of Celebration is going to Fiji on Monday, but not to soak in the sun.
Instead, they will be spending eight days at Homes of Hope; a faith-based, non-governmental organization. Located near capitol city Suva, Homes of Hope shelters rehabilitates sexually exploited women and their children. The group from Maricopa will help with ongoing construction and outreach efforts.
"(Homes of Hope) is an environment that is completely created around the restoration of women in the sex slave industry," said Pastor Josh Barrett. He will be joined in Fiji by Pastor Mat Balgaard, Brad Dandurand and Rob and Amber Dolson.
The U.S. State Department’s 2008 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report names Fiji a source country for internal human trafficking linked to commercial sex. The sex trade in Fiji is growing, and so is the number of women being sold or forced into prostitution.
"The primary source of income for Fiji is tourism, and many people looking to have sex with children go there to take advantage of the lack of protection and the absolute desperate state of many Fijian children," explained Amber Dolson.
Since its 2007 debut in the report, sexual exploitation in Fiji has increased while governmental efforts to curb the problem have been virtually non-existent. According to the report, the Fijian government has yet to comply with minimum standards to eliminate trafficking set forth in the 2000 Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA).
"In Fiji you can check into a hotel and order a girl for sex. It’s like ordering a pizza, it’s ridiculous," Dandurand said.
The CIA World Factbook estimates nearly 25 percent of Fijians live below the poverty line. Predators and even relatives force a life of prostitution on young girls to turn a profit. A history of easy, informal adoptions may facilitate sexual trafficking.
"It’s more of a cultural thing than anything else," Barrett said. "Not necessarily an organized ring. Finances have something to do with it, but most cases deal with relatives on a basis to survive."
This year’s report ranks Fiji as a Tier 3 offender, the worst placement possible. Tier 3 countries may be subject to U.S. sanctions to take effect later this year.
Founded in 1996, Homes of Hope helps restore women who have suffered through years of prostitution.
"It is a society that teaches how to be self sufficient," Barrett said. "It’s hard to know your own self worth unless you know you matter to Jesus. It starts with a spiritual re-birth and the physical and emotional follows."
The women who come to Homes of Hope are either pregnant or have children. While living at the shelter, they are given an education, taught a trade and how to be responsible parents.
Dolson said the voluntary program is, "founded on principles of the Bible and teaches girls about their value from God’s perspective, forgiveness and life purpose."
The men from the group will help finish the third story of a new schoolhouse during their trip, while Dolson’s focus will be connecting with and counseling the women.
According to the Homes of Hope Web site, the children’s education program aims to instill "new habits, thinking and attitudes to help break repeated negative patterns."
"By teaching the children to become adults who actively protect and value children instead of neglect, rape and exploit them," the cycle of destruction can be broken, Dolson said.
The group will also spend time talking with local students to raise awareness of the commercial sex problem in Fiji.
"We will be spending a couple nights at the university talking to teenagers, sharing Christ with them and letting them be aware of what is going on in their country with parents exploiting children in the sex trade," Dandurand said.
Balgaard said the group will specifically address young men about being protectors of women instead of predators.
"At this point, we are trying to teach prevention," Dandurand said. "They need to treat the girls as victims and not criminals."
"The reality is that change does take time," Barrett added. "We’re not going to go in and make a massive change. We’re trying to take small steps and change a generation."
This will be the first international outreach trip for the Church of Celebration. Barrett said this trip will show them how they can make a difference. The church has hopes of bringing a larger group to Fiji next year.
"We will do our best to change what seems to be a very real epidemic across the world, and fight against injustices in the world," Barrett said. "Our goal is to go over with open minds and open eyes."