Case study: Faith in gender equality in the Pacific
Christianity is at the heart of Pacific culture with approximately 95 percent of Pacific Islanders (with lower rates in Fiji) identifying as Christians. Pacific Women believes significant positive change in gender equality will come from the work of churches and Christian development organisations using innovative, faith-based approaches.
Through the Australian aid program, the Pacific Women Shaping Pacific Development initiative is supporting UnitingWorld, the Pacific Council of Churches (PCC) and the Anglican church supported House of Sarah to work collaboratively across each of their programs targeted at addressing violence against women and girls.
'The system that I grew up in and the knowledge that was given to me by my parents and the leaders of the church was different - it was that women are inferior to men. It is very important to correct this understanding because women and men are same in the eyes of God. This can only be done if we go back to the roots, which is the Bible. The interpretation of the Bible is so important because it can do good but also harm people if not done correctly.'
Ms Sosefo Tigarea, the Women's Program Coordinator at the Pacific Theological College, offered these reflections whilst participating in UnitingWorld's regional Partnering Women for Change program.
With support from Pacific Women, UnitingWorld partners with churches and ecumenical networks in the Pacific to review traditional patriarchal views of the bible in favour of an inclusive biblical framework. The Partnering Women for Change program also works closely with women's fellowship organisations to support leadership opportunities for women within churches and community.
The PCC is the peak fellowship organisation of 22 Pacific member country churches. Through the PCC's awareness programs with indigenous communities, Pacific Women is supporting the introduction of gender equality principles to church members.
Ms Ethel Suri is the Women's Desk Officer of the PCC. She explained:
'One of the resolutions from the last General Assembly was for at least five national churches to have policies on eliminating violence against women and at least five national churches to have male advocacy programs in their countries.'
The PCC is working to support churches achieve these goals. It recognises that to be successful, networking is essential. The PCC therefore works with partners to complement the theologically based curriculum. This includes the Fiji Women's Crisis Centre (a key partner of Pacific Women).
In Fiji, the Support for Ecumenical Approaches to Ending Violence against Women project conducted by the House of Sarah also strives to challenge those who interpret the bible in a way that views women as inferior to men. The House of Sarah is a non-government organisation (NGO) of the Anglican Church of Polynesia registered in 2012 as a response to the violence against women in faith-based settings. With Pacific Women's assistance, it conducts workshops with women and young people on the interface between biblical teachings, human rights, violence against women and gender equality. It also supports churches with awareness raising activities on violence against women such as biblio-dramas, messages and liturgies for 'Break the Silence' Sunday services during the 16 Days of Activism against Gender Based Violence Campaign through the Christian Network Talanoa, a forum of ecumenical partners working to address violence against women in faith-based communities.
This overlap of faith-based and human rights-based teachings about gender equality is extremely important, but also extremely challenging. Reverend Dr Cliff Bird, a Solomon Islands theologian and UnitingWorld's Pacific Regional Coordinator, described it this way:
'On the one hand human rights are seen by many ordinary Oceanic peoples as foreign, making claims that are seen as overtly individualistic, unbiblical and unchristian. On the other hand, some human rights organisations and agencies see churches and religions in general in negative ways harbouring church members who perpetrate violence against women and children; condoning, perhaps even justifying violations of human rights within the family, community and church settings, through acts of 'forgive and forget' for instance.'
Aside from culture, religion has the reputation for perpetuating gender inequality. Pacific Women's contribution to these effective faith-based initiatives is working to change that.