I live in a tropical island paradise. It is an idyllic picture postcard world where you can escape the freezing northern hemisphere temperatures this time of the year.
But beyond the postcard smiles lies a cold reality because according to the Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre (FWCC) “Fiji's rates of violence against women are among the very highest in the world". The FWCC reports that 64% of women who have been in intimate relationships have experienced physical or sexual violence from their partner, including 61% who were physically attacked and 34% who were sexually abused.
However it is the season of peace, non-violence and hope and so as a feminist of faith what gives me hope is our Fijian faith leaders stepping up to declare “No” to Rape and “No” to Violence Against Women and Children. It is all part of a campaign produced for the House of Sarah, Supported by UN Women, Australian Aid and the European Union (see http://houseofsarah.org/)
The campaign which appeared on national television and in cinemas reached a wide audience - it is definitely more than symbolic gesture of goodwill. It is a vital reminder that what we must hear is not just the anguished demands of women and girls but the voice of community and faith leaders who can assist us to call out all forms of violence against women, to tackle the injustices which fuel the root causes of violence.
This is not the first time that faith leaders have united in this way. The World Council of Churches (WCC) has been speaking out against sexual abuse and other forms of violence against women for several decades. In the 1990s, the WCC held a Decade of Churches in Solidarity with Women, highlighting the efforts of those resisting all forms of gender violence, including the use of rape as a weapon of war. In June this year, the WCC relaunched its “Thursdays in Black” campaign, urging women and men to join the movement and stand up against a culture that enables rape and sexual violence to take place.
As a survivor of violence myself I firmly believe that a key platform to advocate for an end to all forms of gender based violence are our places of worship.
It was a place I looked for help and guidance - not very successfully many years ago which is why I recognise the changes that are happening. The level of growing accountability of faith leaders to the women's human rights and gender equality agenda.
Our faith community must take collective responsibility beyond the annual 16 days campaign. We must transform prayer into action for an end to violence.
We are not invisible. We will not be silenced.
It requires a special message this Christmas season as we gather to commemorate the birth of “The Prince of Peace” in our cathedrals, chapels and churches with praise and worship - and in homes that will celebrate the festivities - the message for Christmas 2018 must be that this is the advent for Peace and Non Violence because sermons can inspire us and mobilise us in our common quest to overcome rape culture and end the pandemic of violence!
Beyond the pulpit and places of worship the faith community is also well placed to support community action through their wide infrastructure including the many schools they support and manage across Fiji as well as community level programmes for men, women and young people.
Such strategies would enhance the current collective actions of women’s rights groups, youth groups, civil society and social movement activists.
These can be also be further enhanced by political leaders tackling the root causes of violence by addressing the social and cultural conditions, the underlying political and economic causes which perpetuate gender inequalities.
It does require police force that is well resourced and is trained to undertake gender analysis and gender responsive action that women and children will trust to voice their concerns.
It also requires media content that rethinks its own portrayal of violence by going beyond creating headlines from the police data by generating analytical features which contribute to the prevention of violence.
It requires a whole nation to be willing to say we do not want to be part of the global statistics on the high prevalence of violence – but as a country that prides ourselves as people of many faiths – we will join our faith leaders in saying “no to all forms of violence”.
Then only can we truly promote the picture postcard of our island paradise, where each girl, each child born is assured of a life free of all forms of violence.
We must be courageously committed to this purpose and to not just see, but experience a new horizon.