By Rev Sef Carroll
UnitingWorld’s Rev Seforosa Carroll was recently asked to speak at a Violence Against Women Dialogue in Fiji. Here, she reflects on the experience.
The theme for the Pacific women’s leadership dialogue in Nadi, Fiji on Tuesday November 25th 2014 was aptly titled – Violence against women is everyone’s business.
It’s no coincidence that the dialogue was held on this particular day as November 25th is the International Day of Violence Against Women. The dialogue in Nadi was the second of its kind to be held in the region. The first was in Tonga which brought together women MPs and senior bureaucrats across the region to discuss strategies to reduce the barriers to women’s leadership in the Pacific and to identity opportunities for women policy makers to increase the impact and influence of their leadership.
The dialogue in Nadi was hosted by Natasha Stott Despoja, the Australian Ambassador for Women and Girls on behalf of the Australian Foreign Minister, Hon. Julie Bishop MP and the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The dialogue was implemented under the ‘Pacific Women Shaping Pacific Development’ (Pacific Women) organisation based in Suva. Pacific Women is a $320 million ten year initiative ‘to improve the political, economic, and social opportunities for Pacific women’. Its key focus areas are empowering women through leadership and decision-making, creating opportunities for economic empowerment of women, ending violence against women, education and health. The strategic emphasis focuses on mobilising the private sector. The dialogue brought together thirty participants representing the private sector, government and civil society.
The emphasis of this dialogue was on the contributions of the private sector to eliminate violence against women. In this model VAW (Violence Against Women) is heavily weighted on the economic argument. There is, one could argue, a play on words in the title of the dialogue as the key argument is really about the economic impact of violence against women on both the private sector and the State. VAW lowers productivity and incurs high costs for businesses. The Business Coalition for Women flyer bears the heading: “Black eyes cost business” a great play on words but it is concerning that an economic argument has to be made in order to get governments and businesses moving.
The dialogue in Nadi took the form of four short presentations by women followed by a plenary discussion. The presentations were a blend of personal experience, research, signposts toward the future and questions for further research. Lemalu Sina Retzlaff, a business woman from Samoa gave a very moving, insightful and inspiring presentation. A domestic abuse survivor herself, her presentation brought together personal experience of abuse and its impact on her identity and status as a business woman in a small community. Exposing domestic abuse in small island communities creates an ‘unsavoury’ or pitiful stigma on the woman. Sina remarks “My status and identity as a businesswoman was redefined in the light of my abuse. It is why many abused women don’t like the light shone upon their experiences, why it is something they try so very hard to hide”.
Each presentation addressed different aspects of VAW and held together by a common theme, the contribution of the private sector. Sandra Bernklau who wrote the background paper for the conference provided an overview of that scoping paper which was on the private sector’s response and contributions to eliminating violence against women. Greenta Vienna Tome (Solomon Islands) spoke about her work with palm oil companies and liaising with communities. The objective of her work was safeguarding the rights of women and ensuring safe workplaces for women. Finally, Shamima Ali (Fiji) provided an overview of the national research on women’s health and life experiences in Fiji which has been collated and published under the title ‘Somebody’s life, everybody’s business!’ This study is a detailed survey and analysis of physical, sexual and emotional violence towards women by intimate partners or husbands and non-intimate partners. Shamima also raised some very important signposts for ongoing work on VAW. She stated that there still is a “lack of human rights approach to violence” and there needs to be “increased gender sensitivity in service provision”. A growing area that Shamima has been responsible for and equally passionate about in Fiji and the Pacific is the nurture of male advocates.
The statistics for VAW in the Pacific is quite depressing. Between 40-70% of women across the Pacific will have experienced some form of gender-based violence in their lifetime from intimate partners and families. This is despite 30 years of aid programming in the Pacific. A recent title of an article published this year ‘A woman should be beaten if she deserves to be punished’ is a telling sign that VAW is still very much alive in the Pacific. The article was an overview of the results of a survey on gender-based violence in Fiji and PNG. There has been at best, very little change and where there have been changes they have been slow.. The trend in statistics suggests that gender based violence is likely to rise. And that begs the question, why? What vital link(s) or connection(s) are we missing? Perhaps as one person suggested at the dialogue, ‘we have been focusing on creating awareness of the issue and we have only been able to address the symptoms’. It is perhaps time to invest in what Natasha Stott Despoja calls “the drivers, the causes behind the violence”.
The dialogue also recognised there is work needing to be done through research, particularly in examining the link between empowering women in leadership in the public sphere and dealing with the corresponding effect of violence in the home. There is still ongoing work needed in changing attitudes leading to behavioural changes in men and women with regard to violence against women and an increased emphasis on counseling that focuses on changing attitudes and behavior in men.
Yet the dialogue was not all gloom. There was also space for celebration of the achievements made by women (and men) in creating awareness of the issue, the individual and collective efforts made to shape legal processes with regard to gender based violence and changes made by businesses in adopting internal procedures for safe work places – all of which have helped to effect change.
Gender inequality, gender based violence or any form of violence or exclusion is everyone’s business – not only in terms of its economic value, but also in terms of its communal, spiritual and theological worth. Although the emphasis of this particular dialogue in Nadi was on the role and contribution of the private sector, the role of churches is also critical. VAW requires a holistic approach. Economic and social empowerment, health, education, leadership and eliminating violence are all interrelated and each cannot be addressed in isolation. Women need to be empowered in both the private and public spheres and this includes the church. This requires addressing theological and cultural misinterpretations and the value of women in the church and society. There is more that can be done by Pacific churches in addressing these issues and challenges culturally and theologically. Pacific churches have a vital, critical, role to play and it is one that is slowly being embraced. Of particular mention is the PNG Church Partnerships Forum, an ecumenical body that is in the process of developing a gender theology statement and which I and my UnitingWorld colleague Rev Dr Cliff Bird have been a part.
At UnitingWorld we recognise that reducing and eliminating VAW requires an interrelated approach of both development and theology. UnitingWorld Relief and Development Unit’s Partnering Women for Change is a gender themed development program with an intentional focus on women’s empowerment and gender equality. The program is designed specifically to work with the extensive networks of women within UnitingWorld’s partner churches and their communities. While this program deliberately works in partnership with women, the program also includes specific engagement with men and boys, empowering them to be partners in the process, advocating for gender equality and opposing all forms of violence.
In addressing the dynamic of gender equality and the prevalence of gender based violence, we also work closely with the leadership of partner churches and men’s groups within the church and the wider community. While including women and girls in this aspect, we specifically work with men and boys in relation to men and men’s personhood, recognising that men need to be active participants for gender equality to be achieved and gender based violence eliminated. Rev Dr Cliff Bird in our Pacific office in Suva has begun working with men’s groups within the church in both awareness raising and to work through the root causes of violence.
Equally, through our Church Connection Unit’s Transforming Lives through Leadership program, UnitingWorld provides scholarships for women to study theology with the long-term objective of increasing female leadership and participation within the Church.
Although significant steps have been made and continue being made to break the cycle of violence against women there is still a long road to travel to bring about the necessary changes that give women freedom from violence and fear. This ongoing work of eliminating violence is a shared responsibility. It is hard, agonizing, risky work. It requires intentional, critical engagement with deeply held cultural values and theological beliefs. It is everyone’s business because the effects of violence directly and/or indirectly affect us all. The poisonous venom of violence affects the very core of our human worth and dignity. Most of all it deprives us of full access to the abundant life so freely given to us through Christ.
Rev Sef Carroll
Manager, Church Partnerships Pacific
Church Connections, UnitingWorld