March 8 is International Women’s Day. In this blog UnitingWorld’s Bronwyn Fraser shares encouraging stories from the Pacific, where partnering with churches and Women’s Fellowship networks is opening doors to address gender inequality and empower women and girls.
Recently I came back from a whirlwind visit to Vanuatu. It felt a little like a trip to Narnia – what seemed like a fortnight in Vanuatu with all the meetings and project work to get done was actually only 3 days out of the office! My role in the visit was to sit with the leaders of the Women’s Fellowship and help to design the “Gender and Leadership” program that they want to run through the Church for their communities.
It is a real privilege for me to spend time with these women and dream with them about the changes that they want to see in their communities and to be play a part in planting the seeds for this change.
Violence is a huge issue in the Pacific – I have the reports and I can quote the statistics. And there is a lot of work being done in the area of responding to and addressing violence against women. Much of this work is based on human rights and the UN conventions. Now I don’t have a problem with that. Actually to be honest I’m a bit of a fan of human rights, the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and gender equality in general really! But as I have sat with women from various island nations across the Pacific, as well as participated in a number of Aid Sector forums on the subject, I have made two observations:
- Most of these programs focus on the problem more than the people
- Most programs cling to “UN speak” – using language that in the context of communities within the Pacific, communicates secularism and individualism, language that is often disconnected from their faith and culture. It is a language imposed from outside rather than generated from within.
As I sat in Vanuatu, talking with Melody, Cyrilline and Martha, in lovely circular conversations as is the way of talanoa, of story and of life, I caught their vision, the vision of a different way.
They talk about the love that God has for creation, for humanity. For them gender rightfully isn’t just about women, and the problems communities face aren’t just problems of violence. Gender is about men and women created as equals in the image of God, it’s about respectful relationships and ways of interacting together and it’s about recognising the inherent dignity of all people. This vision of society that they see is indeed, I believe the vision of humanity as God created it to be. They don’t want to paint men as the bad guys and women as the victims which is so often the dialogue. Rather they want to lead a program that is inclusive of the voices of all – women, men, girls, boys, people who have a disability, those with power and those who don’t, people from all churches… essentially the whole of community.
They see that violence is an outplaying of an unbalanced human system, one that has strayed from God’s design. And the only way back is to build their Gender and Leadership program on the foundation of God’s word. While this might make secular agencies in the aid sector a little nervous, in the Pacific it also makes a great deal of sense. Yet currently there is a gap between what is seen as secular approaches and biblical beliefs. Without a theological bridge that brings the two together, real change – change in families, change in culture and change in communities (all of which have the church at the centre), will not happen.
Early last year I participated in a workshop in Fiji with the Pacific Conference of Churches looking at the Elimination of Violence against Women. A prominent Pacific theologian, Rev Dr Cliff Bird, spoke on Matt 5: 38 – 42 . You might know the passage – “turn the other cheek” and all that. This is a passage that, along with a “forgive and forget” theology, is commonly preached in such a way that it oppresses the victims of violence, especially women. It tells them to stay and pray, to be passive, to not fight back, to forgive and ultimately to just put up with it. It has also ensured that accountability is removed from the perpetrators and that justice is forsaken. In this interpretation neither victim nor perpetrator are living the fullness of life as God intended it. Both are prisoners.
Yet the message in Cliff’s presentation was about freedom. He talked about how Jesus himself resisted systems of oppression and injustice, how Jesus spoke out against discriminating practices of the religious leaders and how he frequently went against what was being preached as acceptable and lived a different way. The way of Jesus was not one of violence nor was it one of meek passivity. Through this passage, as interpreted from within the culture and context in which it was written, Cliff talked of a third way where situations of violence were turned into opportunities of empowerment; about taking control and asserting dignity without resorting to a violent response. Here love is an action, a light that is shone on the perpetrators of injustice and abuse. Love is the way that can secure human dignity through justice. Surely this is essentially a message of Human Rights as well, right?
It’s quite a profound experience to sit in a room and visually witness the word of God be the key that brings freedom. The response from almost every woman in the room was of release, joy, hope and fire.
Yet presence in this room was limited to those who were chosen to represent their Churches. They were mostly educated, articulate women and men who had some form of leadership within their church circles. But what about the lives and voices of women living in villages across the Pacific, many of whom have not had access to education and many of whom are so often dismissed? These women’s stories are rarely heard and they are often excluded from all forums where these conversations are being held. The only message they hear is the one preached from the pulpit on Sunday and so often sadly, the oppressive message that serves as the cage that keeps them prisoner rather than the freedom message intended by God.
But there are winds of change stirring and UnitingWorld is stepping up to take a lead. We are currently establishing a UnitingWorld office in Suva, and have employed Cliff Bird to develop theological resources as a solid foundation for our work in the Pacific. These theological resources will shed light on gender equality and human dignity; demand protection of children and those most vulnerable and demonstrate rightful human relationships and stewardship of environmental resources. Cliff will work closely with our Partner Churches across the Pacific, challenging them and empowering them from a theological perspective to be the leaders for transformative change firstly from within their own churches and then more widely in their communities and their countries.
I can’t help but be excited.
Read more about the Partnering Women for Change program through the Relief and Development Unit of UnitingWorld here
Find out more about theological training for women through the Church Connections Unit of UnitingWorld here