- Focus Areas
Church representatives at the Forum. L-R: Ms Martha Yamsiu (Presbyterian Church of Vanuatu), Ms Bairenga Kirabuke (Kiribati Uniting Church) and Ms Helen Vavia (United Church in PNG) were part of plenary sessions during the two days and spoke about their work in progressing gender equality within the church. Photo: Shazia Usman, Pacific Women Support Unit.
Finding pathways for secular and faith-based agencies and churches to collaborate for gender equality and reducing violence against women in the Pacific was the aim of the “Bridging the Gap” forum hosted by UnitingWorld in Suva from 12 to 13 May. The Forum was part of UnitingWorld’s Pacific-wide Partnering Women for Change Program, co-funded by Pacific Women.
“There are many agencies doing fantastic work in addressing gender inequality and violence against women across the Pacific,” said Ms Bronwyn Fraser, UnitingWorld’s Pacific Program Manager. “However at times there is a disconnect between the work of secular agencies and churches. In a context such as the Pacific, this can hold back progress.”
Secular human rights agencies such as the Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre and FemLINKPACIFIC were also part of the Forum alongside faith-based organisations and churches.
Rev Dr Cliff Bird, a prominent Pacific Theologian from the Solomon Islands and UnitingWorld’s Pacific Regional Coordinator, delivered the keynote address. He highlighted the need to bring together the different approaches of agencies working for human rights, noting in a context where up to 95 percent of people are Christian (with Fiji being at significantly lower percentage), there is not a strong understanding of human rights concepts, especially for the 60 to 80 percent of the population that live in isolated and rural parts of the Pacific.
“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,” said Rev Dr Cliff. “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.”
Ms Colleen Geyer, the first women General Secretary of the Uniting Church in Australia also addressed the Forum: “Our understanding of all people as made in the image of God also recognises the importance of women in leadership, just as God’s grace is for all people. When we share in ministry and leadership, our shared gifts and skills contributes to a more whole community.
The Forum was a fantastic opportunity for sharing, learning and reflecting:
Ms Sosefo Tigarea, Women’s Program Coordinator, Pacific Theological College (Fiji): “I am glad I was part of this Forum as it has given me ideas on how I can possibly incorporate gender equality and human rights topics into my curriculum. The students in my program are mostly wives of students who have come to study at the college. It’s very important to rightly translate scripture. 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 Martha Yamsiu, Gender Officer, Presbyterian Women Missionary Union (Vanuatu): “In my role, one of the biggest challenge I find in talking about gender equality, is culture because we have been brought up to believe that women have a certain place and role. We want to see shift from our culture to God’s culture. We have a saying in Vanuatu – when you plant a tree and your tree is bent, it hard for your to straighten because you have to do it when it’s young. We want to see the same thing when creating awareness on gender and women’s leadership. I don’t believe in just talking about it, we must practice it, live it. I started it in my home as well.”
UnitingWorld’s Partnering Women for Change Program works with partner churches and ecumenical networks to review traditional patriarchal views of the bible in favour of an inclusive and equality biblical framework, as well as working closely with women’s fellowship organisations in supporting voice and leadership opportunities for women within churches and community. For more information and resources on the Program, visit UnitingWorld’s website.