FIJI has one of the highest rates of violence against women in the world. Studies suggest that about two-thirds of women who have ever been in an intimate relationship have experienced physical and/or sexual violence. When emotional violence is included, the number rises to 74 per cent. From the age of 15, 31 per cent of women and girls were subject to physical or sexual assault by non-partners. Statistics from Tonga and Samoa are just as high.
Globally, violence against women and girls is one of the most widespread human-rights violations, but one of the least-prosecuted crimes. Against this backdrop, the predominant perception is that the Church is an institution complicit, by silence, in the perpetuation of violence. The Church is not seen often enough speaking out and making a stand against violence against women, or proactively correcting misinterpretations of particular biblical texts used to justify physical abuse. Many look on the Church as a gatekeeper, a conservative force resistant to change — or, worse, as denying that violence occurs within its own community.
In the past seven years, the diocese of Polynesia, part of the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia, has been among the faith-based organisations in Fiji and Oceania in the forefront of advocacy for a stronger prophetic voice against this scourge. We believe that there is a gospel imperative to take action.
THE watershed was in 2013, when the Church’s synod passed a resolution demanding zero tolerance of violence against women and children in the Church, our homes, and our settlements. For the first time, the Church was making its stand publicly: violence against women and children was not acceptable and could never be justified. The adoption of the Anglican Communion’s Safe Church Charter complemented the resolution.
The urgent need for the Church to look to its own household was illustrated recently, when one of our leaders described how a parishioner had disclosed a life of pain and suffering inflicted by an abusive husband, who was a priest.
It led to the asking of questions: how does one respond with sensitivity, but, most importantly of all, with integrity and sincerity, when confronted with such a situation? What does one fall back on to be able to deal professionally but compassionately with a survivor of violence? Are there policies and procedures in place to guide an organisation, a church, when an employee or a member of the congregation comes to work with evidence of having been abused? How does an organisation deal with the uncomfortable truth that one of its personnel perpetrates violence?
A House of Sarah workshop at St Matthew’s, Suva, which has a Hindi-speaking parish
Our journey towards a safe Church has included a re-examination of people’s perceptions of the modern woman. Negative social norms that perpetuate the treatment of women as inferior to men can be attributed to several sources. A significant contributory factor is traditional cultural beliefs undergirded by the patriarchal character of society. Males are valued above females. This is compounded by biblical interpretations that portray women as inferior to men.
Women who are in an abusive relationship often say that they cannot leave it because they are in it “for better, for worse”; or “Let no one come between those whom God has joined together.” The perpetrator, on the other hand, defends his actions with biblical texts that speak of the submission of women, or say that the first woman came from a man’s rib and women are therefore subordinate. Prevalent norms include the belief that women must be submissive to men; the way women dress provokes men to rape; the man is the head of the household; and if a woman is submissive to her husband, there will be no domestic violence.
The work of the House of Sarah in Fiji has been crucial to tackling these norms. Established in 2009 as the Church’s response to the problem of violence against women and children, this ministry is named after Serai (Sarah), a woman scorned and ridiculed because of her childlessness. When God spoke to her and blessed her with a child, she became a woman of promise. We chose the name because it signifies the radical transformation that can happen when an intervention is made.
Since 2014, House of Sarah has run Safe Church workshops in parishes; these re-examine the Bible texts that are perpetuating negative social norms for women; human rights, and women’s rights, and relevant church legislation. Participants undergo a baseline survey that gauges their beliefs about women, men, and their relationships, and are encouraged to re-examine meticulously age-old interpretations of the scriptures and church doctrines. They are introduced to modern documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Workshops also encourage ordained and lay leaders to speak out against domestic violence. Today, you will hear messages delivered from pulpits condemning violence against women as a sin. The House of Sarah also supports Sarah Carers: women in Anglican communities who offer referral services to those in need, especially in cases of violence against women, and child abuse. The diocese has also produced school curricula on equal and respectful relationships.
Engaging men and boys as partners in the elimination of violence against women and girls is a recognised strategy for prevention. Since 2012, the Simeon Ministry has undertaken the task of awareness-raising among male churchgoers. We now want to identify male role-models and leaders in the community as spokespersons.
The male leaders of Fiji’s mainstream Churches have set a strong example. Every night, for three weeks in November, a short film was broadcast on national television and in cinemas; it showed them uniting to condemn violence against women and children as a sin. Every year, the diocese observes Break the Silence Sunday, on which the Church is encouraged to speak out against violence. For the past two years, this has included the members of the Fiji Council of Churches.
ONE of the main considerations in seeking to advance this work is to identify suitable terminology that will build bridges of understanding rather than create obstacles.
Many in the Church are suspicious of words such as “human rights”, “gender-based violence,” “intimate-partner violence”, “women’s rights” — to name but a few. A common argument against these phrases, which predominate in the development sector, is that they are “not church language”. There is an ongoing effort to find compromises without diluting the essence and urgency of the language. Part of the hesitancy about accepting these terms is the fear that these developments will radically change the life of the Church.
Another possible explanation is that these developments are perceived as being beneficial and empowering to women. Also, human rights is about individual rights, whereas societies in Oceania value group rights.
“Safe Church” rather than “a violence-free Church” is the terminology used by the Anglican Communion. Attributing equality between women and men to biblical sources is more acceptable to many than relating it to human-rights conventions or laws.
Another significant change being undertaken to create a Safe Church is work to ensure that women and men are equitably represented in the Church’s governance. Until 2015, the composition of the diocesan synod was predominantly male: women made up only about five per cent of its membership.
In 2013, this synod amended regulations governing its membership, and, just two years later, gender equity of representation in the synod was achieved. Two years later, there was also significant increase in youth membership of the synod. Effective representation of women in church decision-making bodies is not only a human-rights issue, but also very much an affirmation of God’s calling of women and men in the leadership of the Church.
Finally, we are conscious, in Fiji, of the interconnectedness of the threats that face our communities. Amid reports on climate change, an under-documented fact is that with rising sea-levels come rising levels of violence. The UN Multi-Country Office in the Pacific said that there had been a 300-per-cent increase in new cases of domestic violence reported by the Tanna Women’s Counselling Centre, in Vanuatu, after two tropical cyclones hit the province in 2011.
When cyclones strike, resulting in the relocation of families to evacuation centres, it is reported that incidents of domestic violence increase. This can be traced to the pressure of living in confined spaces for extended periods with no privacy. In some instances, sexual abuse and rape also occurs.
If temperatures increase by two per cent, the region can expect a 12-per-cent increase in the intensity of tropical cyclones in the north-west Pacific. Building a Church — a society — in which women are safe from violence perpetrated by men is urgent work.
The Revd Sereima Lomaloma is Ministry Officer in the diocese of Polynesia, and a trustee of the House of Sarah.