Churches play key role in breaking the barriers to gender equality: Dame Meg at ‘Break the Silence’ service

Since 2013, the Sunday before the 25th November has become ‘Break the Silence’ Sunday for the Christian network Talanoa, an alliance of Fijian women’s groups and churches who observe a special service ahead of the 25 November – the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, as the springboard for an annual 16 days of church and community activism against gender based violence, culminating on international Human Rights Day on 10 December.  Pacific Islands Forum staff and families joined Secretary General Dame Meg Taylor at the 2020 Break the Silence service on the 22 November, where she delivered the statement below:

 Break the Silence’ Sunday
Ecumenical Service with the PIFS Community, Diplomatic Corps, Suva Free Wesleyan Church in Tonga Community
‘Api Tonga Community Centre, Laucala Bay Road.
22 November 2020

The Reverend James Bhagwan,  Members of the Diplomatic Corp,  Sisters and Brothers

My colleagues and I at the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat are very pleased to join the Pacific Conference of Churches and the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga in Suva in this service to mark the beginning of the campaign on 16-Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence.

In July this year, the violent death of Ms Jenelyn Kennedy in Papua New Guinea was a very poignant reminder of the very real threat that we, as Pacific women, continue to face in our society – that is, that 2 out of 3 women in our region continue to face intimate partner violence.

Jenelyn’s death was one so violent, that it forced me to again face the reality of a power dominance that is alive in our traditional and modern cultures – I had to acknowledge the ingrained cultural drivers of gender inequality that exist in our cultures in the Pacific. Indeed, it is our very own traditional social structures and hierarchies that privilege men over women. It is our own social and cultural norms that reinforce discrimination against women and girls in our society.

Jenelyn’s death, for me, reinforced the very simple yet integral question of our societal values – moreso, how we as a society value women and girls. With gender based violence statistics as horrendously high as they are in the Pacific, will we, as people of the Pacific, continue to stand by and tolerate these acts or will we take a stand and make a commitment towards real societal and behavioural change?

To address real societal and behavioural change will not be easy but it is not impossible – it will warrant concerted efforts at all levels of society to transform attitudes, behaviour and practice that condone unequal relations between men, women, girls, boys and communities based on their identities.

Our ability to effect real change in transforming attitudes depends on us as individual – you and me.

As a region, there is much that has been done and many programmes that have been run on the issue of gender based violence, however, this will continue to be a problem if we do not address the root cause of the issue. To this end, I am very proud of the work that we continue to progress through regional initiatives such as the Pacific Partnership on Ending Violence Against Women and Girls which sees the development and implementation of a comprehensive programme under the leadership of UN Women and regional organisations such as the Pacific Community and the Forum Secretariat, supported by development partners, to really drive transformative change at the societal level through existing community mechanisms and groups such as faith-based organisations, community groups, sporting bodies and a primary education focused initiatives.

At a more colloquial level at the Secretariat, our PIFS Rugby Team has integrated advocacy around Ending Violence Against Women in their weekly rugby competition – carving out time on the margins of rugby matches to talk about this issue and share the critical role of men transforming the norms around gender discrimination and violence. Indeed, it is simple conversations such as these that ignite a thirst to understand this issue better – and thereby beginning the journey to crystallising our understanding and transforming the related societal norms accordingly.

Again, I reaffirm, our ability to effect real change in transforming attitudes depends on you and me.

Before I conclude, allow me to acknowledge in particular the Christian Network – Talanoa for initiating the Break the Silence Sunday in 2013, and the Anglican Diocese of Polynesia for supporting this initiative in this region. In our society, the church has substantive influence and can therefore, play an important role in breaking the barriers to gender equality and re-shaping mindsets to respect and uplift the status of women and girls in the Blue Pacific.

I thank you.

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