My name is Cruella and I’m the Vice President and Program Manager of TLA, Tonga Leitis Association. For more than 10 years I have worked for TLA. This is the only LGBTIQ leading organisation in the Kingdom of Tonga. Its headquarter is located in the heart of Nuku’alofa—capital of Tonga—but we have branches in Vava’u, the second largest island of Tonga.
What are the services that you were providing to the MSM, trans, LGBTI community (prior to COVID-19)?
TLA was able to reach out to its community to provide food, water and Covid-19 Prevention Information. TLA also has the approval from the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Environment to continue work for TLA members as an essential service to all vulnerable groups. During this time, the LGBTIQ communities are facing a hard time because the majority of them is working in hospitality, tourism; and the beauty and fashion industry. Covid-19 has completely impacted the economy of Tonga, even though there have been no cases in Tonga. The border was completely shut down since the pandemic reached the shores of our neighbouring countries.
Despite the Covid-19, TLA was able to remain in the field. We still continue with its HIV Awareness Program for key populations, such as MSM, transgender and sex workers in Tongatapu, Vava’u, Ha’apai and the ‘Eua Islands. We are grateful for Global Fund for still funding these activities. This is the main project which covers our staff’s salary and also mos of the TLA Office operations.
What were your planned activities in 2020 before the COVID-19 hit?
For 2020 TLA had planned so many activities, such as our Miss Galaxy Queen Pageant which is our main income to manage the Drop In Centre in Nuku’alofa. We also had plans regarding outreach to Niuas—the northernmost group of islands near Samoa. The Bullying Campaign and Gender Inclusive in Sports for schools was also on the list etc.
Since Covid-19 hit, all activities had to be canceled and some were postponed until everything is back to “normal”.
How has the TLA staff and organisation been affected by the pandemic?
The Admin Committee has to tailor the timing of the project when implemented, in order to be able to cover the staff’s salary and TLA’s internal activities and costs. This is actually the main issue that TLA is facing.
With the effect of COVID-19 how do you think it will affect the service provision in the future?
This is a great question. TLA has so many connections with local donors and local governmental projects which enables the organisation to access funds.
However, since the Covid-19 hit, entire funds which were available for civil society organisations went towards other priorities set by the government, such as the Ministry of Health’s Emergency Plan during the pandemic.
Imagine if this will be a long term pandemic, the LGBT issues in our country will be no longer popular. This will eventually affect the services provided by TLA to its members.
As a leader of the organisation – what are your worries (personal and professional)? What are your coping mechanisms during these uncertain times?
Since I started leading this organisation, I have been working with all members within the field. I learnt how to be resilient and to be a survivor in times of need. TLA has been a target organisation because of its issues and all that, but that doesn’t exclude us from working hard and from contributing our services to the community.
As a leader of the organisation – how are you leading your team through these uncertainties? What are the worries of the staff and their mental health?
In times of fear and worry, TLA is shifting its activities towards self-care and the health of community members. TLA also works closely with the Tonga Health Promotion to support TLA’s Physical Activities and Self-Care sessions which started from the end of July and will continue until December 2020. Mid-2021 they will resume until the end of 2021.
This is a good opportunity for the whole LGBTIQ community since the majority has no job whereas others are facing reduced work hours. TLA is hosting an ongoing Netball Competition, a Loss Weight Competition and Zumba Competition, but also provides training and workshops in Prevention NCD from harming the young and senior members.
All activities are to encourage the members and to enable access to a healthy lifestyle, but also to earn money at the same time. TLA is also prioritising this time to train the members on how to consume healthy food and gain access to fresh food, especially when all borders are closed.
Do you have any advice for community-leaders heading organisations and networks working on HIV, and LGBTI rights in the region?
I think the only advice to all LGBTI communities is to empower our communities when it comes to healthy living; and to focus more on self-care at this moment. It is also important to protect ourselves from the Covid-19 pandemic and learn a lot from this pandemic as most of us are working in the HIV field—the never ending but easily forgotten pandemic of all time.
Do you have any advice to give to donors in terms of working with and supporting community organisations working on HIV, and LGBTI rights in the region during the pandemic?
My advice for donors is to still have faith in what we are doing as it requires long term planning to pave the way for a healthy future.
Fighting inequality in this world is not easy and we can’t fix it overnight. We are advising you—as the recipients of your grants and opportunities—to just please, listen. This is a great and important pathway which can lead us to an equal and peaceful new world.
The Global AIDS Strategy is in process, what would like to see there in the new strategy?
I think that we need more voices from the Pacific to raise concern, especially regarding the Covid-19 restrictions where borders were closed. This limitation has affected most members of the LGBT community, but also impacted vulnerable financial sources, e.g. funds.
Global AIDS should include how all LGBT work fields can connect to one another and help break up decision makers in countries regarding ongoing competition between government ministries and civil societies, by collecting data. They forgot the core reason in this work field, which is to save humanity.
Anything else to add?
I think it is better for the LGBTIQ community to have a back up plan for future pandemics, but also for equality in this world.