8 December 2017
Opinion Editorial by Dame Meg Taylor
We must be relentless in our efforts to end violence against women and girls. With the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence coming to an end for 2017 we must maintain our focus on the work that needs to be done.
The past 16 days has seen a flurry of activities related to the issue of gender-based violence and personally, I was reminded of a question posed by a woman journalist in Samoa at the end of the 48th Pacific Islands Forum who, acknowledging the beginning of my second term as secretary general, of the Pacific Islands Forum asked if I felt my position has made any difference to women in the region.
I had to tell her: No. I didn’t think that I’d given as much as I could during my first term. Implicit in my remarks is a commitment to do a lot more in this particular area, building on the momentum of access to civil society at forum leaders’ decision-making tables.
This week the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat and the UN Women Multi-Country Office co-hosted a talanoa exploring effective Pacific approaches to address the issue of violence against women and girls.
During my second term as secretary general I will ensure that the Forum Secretariat is relentless in driving gender issues both in terms of policy development and supporting its effective implementation through regional and partner agencies.
All women and men have a role to play
Last year, I visited the Haus Ruth in Port Moresby, a facility that has been supporting women, children and families with limited resources to reach their full potential since 1976, and was saddened to find women and children survivors of violence including women who were well-dressed but avoided eye contact with me because I might know their husbands.
The visit led to personal musing. If I was a woman caught in that cycle of domestic violence, what would break that cycle?
I would want a safe place to live, a community that hasn’t turned a blind eye to abuse, and a legal system providing practical redress.
If I had no education, the opportunity to learn how to read, write so I could amplify my voice.
I would want to get paid enough to support myself and my family adequately and even contemplate borrowing money to start my own little business. I would also want friends who weren’t ashamed to support me.
I am sure there are many other aspects that could be added to that.
I am from Papua New Guinea’s highland society: my people have survived for years in geographically rugged and fertile valleys and facing hostile realities, patriarchal and very strong in terms of decisions made by men.
People say violence against women is a cultural attitude of people from the highlands. I say it isn’t. Violence exists throughout society including horrendous violent acts against women and girls.
Growing up, I never once saw my grandfather, a tribal leader lay a hand on a woman. They’re always there to provide protection, the same way my uncles and male cousins were. That’s how we were brought up. It is an individual decision at the end of the day whether to inflict pain and suffering on another human or not.
Socio-economic lifelines for survivors
Pacific Island leaders first prioritised violence against women as an issue of concern in 2009 and then in 2012 endorsed the Pacific Leaders Gender Equality Declaration, a comprehensive regional declaration looking at what is required at country-level, focussing on the health issue, the legislative issue, and the response issue.
Now consider in your own countries what are in place, be it policy or legislation, to respond to violence against women.
Vanuatu Women’s Centre director Merilyn Tahi attended the talanoa and spoke passionately about the work the centre provides for niVanuatu acknowledging that having the Pacific Leaders Gender Equality Declaration was crucial for the development of policies related to their work.
In my country, there is now much more open dialogue about something that was taboo, legislative reform, a more responsive health response, police response and a judiciary that is a lot more supportive to say, women who apply for restraining orders for example. But still, more needs to be done.
A critical component for me that also needs to be effective and practical is strong support from financial institutions because when women have access to finance, they are able to support themselves by starting small businesses. We have seen microfinance institutions, and savings and loan societies focus on the economic empowerment of women generally.
However when women are caught in a cycle of violence, it is very hard for them to regain their confidence and the ability to stand on their feet again. We have to find a means of support for women so they can rehabilitate their lives emotionally and financially.
Some of us are privileged to be financially independent or economically empowered. While there are many reasons why women stay in such violent situations, we know that most stay because they are dependent on the perpetrator(s) for survival.
The support of the private sector has been crucial in addressing some of the repercussions of domestic violence for example, some women for whom bride price had been paid need to be able to successfully resettle in their own communities and the financial capacity to do so is supported by the private sector.
Last month I visited a project that is major driver of the falling prevalence rates of violence against women in Uganda. It is a preventative approach I feel could work very well in our island homes and communities considering how much faith and cultural structures and belief systems remain significant decision-making influencers for the majority of our Pacific peoples.
The organisation called Raising Voices has shown that shifting the conversation to the power dynamics and how power can be better utilised and/or shared is making a difference at a very fundamental level. The fact that the organisation is mostly run by volunteers who are critical to initiating these conversations at community level was indeed impressive.
The conversations are not held without perpetrators; they are a huge part of consistent support and conversations. Change comes from a personal space and today, there has been a tremendous decline of violence against women in the country.
In the Pacific, the one thing I find disturbing is the narrative of denial that violence, particularly violence against women and girls, exist in our own communities. A blanket denial does not allow us to even start a conversation.
Pacific-specific approaches are working; Vanuatu through the Vanuatu Women’s Centre has been dogmatic about awareness-raising and male advocacy, from men in leadership positions to boys in schools.
Activism against gender-based violence must be inextricably linked to our daily routine, our attitudes and from our positions in society, wherever that may be.
I am hopeful that we recognise that we all are part of the solution. Addressing attitudes and seeking behaviour change has to be supported by our societal structures.
We must be relentless with measures that are working and continue community-level conversations for a truly transformative step towards the elimination of violence, including violence against women and girls.