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Partnering Women for Change (Pacific Region)

Mary’s father told her not to do it.

Her husband told her not to do it. Everyone in her community told her not to do it.

She did it anyway…

Mary went to college to begin training to become the first woman pastor in the Presbyterian Church of Vanuatu.

It may seem like a small thing, but in a place where the dominant culture says that men  are the leaders and women follow, you simply cannot imagine what a triumph this was, or how delighted I was to meet Mary recently and hear her story.

“I am one of seven children and all my life I wanted to serve God,” Mary proudly told me, as chickens scratched nearby. “In grade six, I passed all my exams – the only girl in my whole village. I went on to high school in Port Vila. I wanted to be a minister in the church.”

Top of her year right through to grade ten, Mary’s dream had been to go on to university and theological college. But she was set for heartbreak when her family chose her brother instead of Mary to be given the chance for higher education.

“I trained to be a schoolteacher, but I didn’t give up my hope of pastoral training,” Mary said. “And after a few years I went back to do a course through the theological college. My father told me not to continue. He said “People do not want this! They don’t want the women preaching and leading. It’s not our culture.” I told him ‘No Dad, this is my Christian faith. I need to do this. And if the young men can do it, why can’t I?”

The Presbyterian Church of Vanuatu (PCV) National Assembly meeting

Mary’s challenges will be familiar to you if you’ve read about our work in the Pacific before. It’s not just patriarchy that has held women back from opportunities and enabled high rates of domestic violence. Traditional readings of the Bible have also justified unequal power between men and women.

That’s why Mary’s determination to challenge the status quo, following her call into ministry despite the difficulties, is so significant.

“I finished my training and was sent to teach religious instruction at one of the high schools and also helped with theological instruction in a training centre, but I became very sick and had to return home,” Mary continued. “That’s when one of the local families suggested I marry, and introduced me to the man who would become my husband – they explained that I would have good support for my ministry and I was excited! We married and soon our first son was born.”

But the next few years continued to hold many challenges for the young family. Placements were hard to come by, and Mary was only offered remote areas in which to serve. Both men and women were uncomfortable with her leadership and it was considered taboo for her to speak in public or to be involved in decision making.

“As I studied more and more from the Bible, I began to ask questions of the village chiefs. ‘Why are women always treated so badly? Why should they suffer so much?’” Mary recalls.

“And as I took more leadership, my own husband began to spend more and more time away from home. Eventually he told me: ‘I have fallen in love with someone else. I have taken another wife.’ My heart was broken.”

Now on her own with three sons, there were few places Mary could turn to for support.

I’ve seen firsthand how difficult life can be for women and girls like Mary in the Pacific. Poverty and violence tighten like a noose on those without family networks because most women don’t work – they’re full-time mothers and wives. Vulnerable and often silenced, there simply haven’t been places for women to speak out or find support for their plight.

Until now.

Stirred by their belief that equality between men and women is at the very heart of God, our church partners across the Pacific are taking action. In a culture where 90% of people identify as Christian, they recognise their influence to help end violence and create a future of dignity and equality for women and men.

You can help our church partners change lives and end family violence Donate today.

The breakthrough – and with it, relief for women like Mary – really began with a meeting of leaders just a few years ago. Ministers, government leaders and lay people came together from across the Pacific.

Solomon Islander Reverend Dr Cliff Bird, alongside his wife Siera and using resources developed with the assistance of UnitingWorld, opened the Bible for the first time to this influential group to teach the richness of life available when we recognise the equality of both men and women.

Rev Dr Cliff and Siera Bird

The Birds taught partnership. They taught trust and cooperation.

They taught the truth found in Genesis that both man and woman are created in the image of the same God, with equal value and potential.

They taught the gospel story of the woman caught in adultery and how Jesus non-violently challenged the Pharisees and Scribes to prevent violence against the woman; “Where was the man who committed adultery?” they asked.

They taught Paul’s description to the Galatians about their unity and equal value in the eyes of God: “…there is no longer male and female; all are one in Christ Jesus.”

And they taught the freedom that can be found when men and women work together in partnership, unravelling how centuries of unquestioned male dominance was ruining the harmony God intended for us all.

Change is happening. For many, the teaching was a complete revelation. They’d simply never heard anything like it. Men openly wept. They recognised the way superiority feeds arrogance and seeds violence. And they asked for forgiveness. They were hungry for a new way to relate to one another and their community.

The men went back to their churches and communities. They began the slow and painstaking work of committing to address the systemic inequalities that characterised their lives, homes and institutions; making plans to live, teach and workshop their new knowledge.

In their own lives, they began to make small changes – listening to their wives, acknowledging their daughters, cleaning the house and taking a bigger role in their children’s lives. And they began to recognise acts of “family discipline” for what they were – often violent and abusive – within their communities and homes.

As we supported our partners to lead more workshops in their churches, we began to hear more of these stories, over months and years from across the Pacific. We realised that this was a way to address inequality and violence that cuts through at all levels.

A Gender Equality Theology workshop in Kiribati, 2019

Incredibly, the work was recognised by the Australian Government. They saw that in many Pacific societies, one of the most effective ways to make change was by supporting churches to re-examine their theology, create advocates and communicate messages of equality through religious networks. They recognised the enormous potential that churches hold as agents of change in communities right across the Pacific. They’ve been a supporter of this work ever since, learning from our partners’ resources and experts.

We know this approach can make a difference to the lives of women and men in the Pacific; restoring equality, reducing violence and helping girls thrive. But we need your support. For centuries, the implicit and explicit teaching of church and culture has been that women are subordinate to men, with all the assumptions that go with it. Unravelling this mindset is long-term, difficult work. Click here to donate now.

In Vanuatu where Mary has struggled all these years, Pastor Nipi was one of many people to attend gender theology workshops for men and women we’ve facilitated with our partners over the past three years.

“I never knew what gender balance was or what it meant in relation to the Bible,” he told me. “At first I thought – what is this ‘gender balance’ they are talking about? We never believed men and women could be equal. But as I made my studies and we talked, I realised there is something there for me to learn! It has infected me! I like it!”

Once a sceptic, Pastor Nipi is now a colleague of Mary and one of many enthusiasts spreading the word about gender equality across the Pacific. He has now been tasked with preparing theological and practical resources for the Presbyterian Church of Vanuatu to lead the work with communities in remote and rural regions throughout the entire country. From unquestioningly assuming that only men had the power and skills to lead, he now believes that women have a vital and equal role to play.

“Working together, women and men can improve life for people in Vanuatu and the whole of the Pacific Islands,” Pastor Nipi says.

“We are using the radio, television and newspaper to talk about gender balance and what the Bible says and it has created such interest! Many people don’t believe until they study the Bible notes we make and then they say, ‘Oh! There is something here for us!’ And they are accepting women as equals. I cannot tell you what a change this is for us.”

Pastor Nipi says he’s had feedback from rural Vanuatu, high in the mountains and remote areas, that the material being produced is being read with astonishment. In plain language at the level people can understand, this teaching is a revolution in people’s lives.

Pastor Nipi, Vanuatu

Pastor Nipi, Vanuatu

In Vanuatu, we supported our partners to produce television commercials that call out violence against women as robbing men and women of the fullness of life that God offers. We’ll support more of our partners to do the same in their different contexts across the Pacific.

In Papua New Guinea, theological college students, both male and female, are excited to be attending our first workshops to learn exactly where and how Jesus valued the lives of women.

In Kiribati, we’re preparing plans to combat family breakdown and violence by teaching parenting skills that emphasise the equality and dignity of all people, as well as the rights and responsibilities of boys and girls.

In the Solomon Islands, our partners recently hosted their first gender equality theology workshops led by Solomon Islander theologians. As a result, church leaders took it to their national assembly and resolved that gender equality is a biblical imperative. We are now supporting them as they create contextually appropriate resources on gender equality and child protection and roll it out across their churches.

The Presbyterian Church of Vanuatu (PCV) National Assembly meeting

The Presbyterian Church of Vanuatu (PCV) National Assembly meeting

“Here is what I want women and girls to know,” Mary told me from the Presbyterian Church of Vanuatu (PCV) National Assembly meeting, where she was an eager participant.

“We can do this together. We can make this change. In the community, in our churches and in the government – we have an important role to play. And men? Do not criticise us. We can do this together. We can share the responsibility of leadership together.”

Mary continues to serve the church in Vanuatu, no longer on the edges but as a far more respected and integrated member of the community. Her challenges are far from over, but she has come further than she could ever have imagined. The Gender Equality Theology project has helped turn the tide and now many are following in Mary’s footsteps. Since the first workshops were held, a woman has been appointed as the first Presbytery Clerk (Lead Minister) and six more women have become pastors in the PCV.

Mary’s success shows that together we can turn tragedy into triumph.

Your gift today can provide our partners in the Pacific with the ability to facilitate workshops, train workshop leaders, produce training resources and create advocates for gender equality and anti-violence. We know it works. We just need the resources to make it happen.

In a world with far too much bad news, I pray you’ll join me in celebrating Mary’s achievements and supporting more women like her in the Pacific who are ready to overcome inequality and violence.

Mary’s triumph cost her dearly. But in a world full of tragedy, she’s absolutely determined to see more triumphs.

Aren’t you?

Dr Sureka Goringe
National Director
UnitingWorld

You can help our church partners change lives and end family violence with the biblical message of equality between women and men.

Click here to donate now.

“90% of people in the Solomon Islands believe in God. When a message about women comes from the Bible, their eyes are open, they feel it has more weight. And that’s why we will see a reduction in gender-based violence and increased respect for women in our society.”

If anyone has the insight to comment on what might make a difference to violence against women in the Pacific, it’s Pastor Lima Tura. 

The sole female lecturer at Seghe Theological College in the Solomon Islands, Lima has a Bachelor of Theology from Pilgrim Theological College in Melbourne, she is a single parent and now teaches theology and biblical studies in her home country. It’s not been an easy journey.

Feeling the call to pastor several years ago, Lima was offered a scholarship in partnership with UnitingWorld and the United Church of the Solomon Islands to study at Seghe. A trailblazer, she literally burnt the midnight oil or read under lamps powered by generators, studying third-hand textbooks from Australia as she worked her way through her Certificate. She completed a Bachelor of Theology in Melbourne and has now returned to her college determined to overcome its many challenges.

“We are lucky right now – we have power connected and two light bulbs in most of the homes,” says Lima.

“Our library is small, and we have no Wi-Fi for internet research – we can sometimes use data on our phones but it is very expensive.”

Despite scarce resources, Lima describes her lecturing position as wonderfully inspiring.

“There are fourteen gentlemen and one woman in my classes,” she laughs.

“The men are really great, very open to equality. I mean, sometimes it is probably hard for them. I’m not sure if they have been taught by a woman before except in school when they were younger.”

The first woman to lecture at the college, Lima is bringing new perspectives to students and existing clergy both by example and through her teaching, which draws on gender equality theology work developed by UnitingWorld as part of the Partnering Women for Change program.

Pastor Lima with Solomon Islander Theologian Rev Dr Cliff Bird

“For both the men and the women here, this message of equality and dignity is so liberating,” Lima says. “We held a workshop to teach from the Bible about respect for women and to share what the scriptures have to say about women and men’s roles. People are very excited. When they hear messages from secular women’s rights organisations they can be suspicious and confused. But when it comes from the pulpit, from the church who they trust, it has much more power and influence.”

In July, a group will meet in Fiji to discuss how Bible study material can be brought alive for students in colleges and within church circles. Lima will be among the attendees.

After years of groundwork, our theological workshops with church partners in the Pacific have attracted funding from the Australian Government.

“The Australian Government recognises that overcoming poverty and ending violence against women in the Pacific is about working to see women’s rights and gifts recognised,” says UnitingWorld Associate Director Bronwyn Spencer. “They’ve also realised that in cultures where Christianity is central, churches hold the most influence and authority to create change. As a result, they’ve been funding our work with partners to explore biblical gender equality, so that local leaders are equipped to preach and teach it and help to open opportunities for women in church leadership. That’s actually pretty radical.”

Leaders of women’s fellowship groups at a Gender Equality Theology workshop in Fiji

For Lima, the support of people here in Australia through UnitingWorld is incredibly precious.

“I can’t thank you enough for the scholarship to study and for the prayers you have offered for me,” she says. “Without you, I could not have answered this call. My dream for the students is that they go back to their communities with the wisdom to address through a theological lens all the challenges they face – social, economic and spiritual. We experience so much good here, but so many difficulties as well.”

THANK YOU for supporting our church partners to lead this transformative dialogue among their communities. Pastor Lima’s story is one thread in a fabric we see being woven from country to country, where God’s powerful message of freedom and dignity for all is shaking and sheltering lives.

Project Update: Kiribati Safe Families, Healthy Communities

The Kiribati Safe Families, Healthy Communities project has gone through two phases.

In the first phase of the project, we worked with RAK (Reitan Aine ki Kamatu – Women’s Fellowship of the Kiribati Uniting Church) to support the establishment of raised vegetable garden beds through resources and training.

Kiribati women identified this as important for three main reasons:

1. Food security
With the increasing effects of climate change on their tiny islands growing food had become more and more difficult. With the rising sea levels, the fresh water table has become contaminated with salt water and is too brackish to grow most crops. Also, this sea-level rise has seen king tides and tropical depressions cause widespread regular flooding, damaging low level food crops.

Kiribati

2. Improved health
As a result of the limited availability of fresh foods, people turn to the imported foods. These include a large diet of 2-minute noodles, excessively fatty cuts of meat (often deemed unsuitable for human consumption in Australia) and preserved sugary foods (as they last the long sea journeys to Kiribati). All this is resulting in national poor health and increased incidents of diabetes.

3. Increased usable income
If the families and communities can grow more of their own food, they will need to spend less on the expensive, poorly nutritious imported food, thus releasing more income into the family budget for school and medical fees.

During the training activities on gardening, composting and healthy cooking (developed and conducted locally), conversations about healthy family and marriage relationships and the protection of women, girls and children were facilitated. The learning from these conversations highlighted specific community needs for families in Kiribati and our partners have been sharing their insights with us.

Gender-based violence is a huge issue in Kiribati and young girls are particularly vulnerable. With Kiribati being so isolated, there is a steady flow of foreign ships into the port bringing supplies. Among communities with little income and high unemployment, young girls are vulnerable to trafficking.

We are currently in the early stages of the second phase of this project with RAK and Kiribati Uniting Church (KUC), which currently consists of 2 main aspects:

1. Theological training and resourcing of Pacific Gender Equality Theology for leaders across the church, women’s fellowship and youth groups. The aim is to shift the patriarchal paradigm and equip the church and its leaders to be able to engage effectively in conversations about gender, domestic violence, child abuse and exploitation with families within their communities. Our partners have identified this as an important part of building safe families in Kiribati.


Gender Equality Theology workshop in Kiribati Feb 2019

2. Evaluation of the ‘healthy communities’ aspect of the project. We are working with our partners to identify the aspects of the garden phase that worked well and the reasons why it was less successful in some locations. We anticipate that after developing a better understanding of the factors that affect project impact, we can move to build on the foundations of food security and increasing people’s incomes, while recognising that it is both spiritual and physical needs.

Gender Equality Theology workshop in Kiribati Feb 2019

As the theological training component of the project is the most active right now, the Kiribati Safe Families, Healthy Communities project is now part of the Pacific Partnering Women for Change project. We will post updates on both aspects of the project as we gather information and take the learning forward with our partners in Kiribati.

RAK Project Coordinator Bairenga wanted to say thank you for the prayers and donations of UnitingWorld supporters for enabling the work of our partners.

She recorded the below in April 2019.

Thank you from Kiribati! from UnitingWorld on Vimeo.

Thank you to everyone who has supported this project!

All photos by Natasha Holland, International Program Manager, UnitingWorld

Gender Equality Theology changing hearts and minds in Papua New Guinea

Salote and Jone have been married 11 years, members of a Christian church, and have two beautiful children. They love one another, but throughout their marriage they’ve had times of conflict and Jone has become angry, abusive and resorted to violence. Each time he pleads for forgiveness, vows to change and for a time makes good on his promise. Each time, violence returns. Salote wants to believe that everyone, with the love of God, can change, but she fears for her life and for the welfare of her children. She asks the advice of her Pastor.

This is the scenario a group of men and women are grappling with in a frostily air-conditioned room in the offices of the United Church of Papua New Guinea, Port Moresby, on a typically hot February day. They’ve come from all over the country – the Highlands, New Britain, Goroka – and they represent different denominations, universities and groups united by a common desire to see an end to violence against women. This week, their unexpected secret weapon is better theology.

“Almost everyone in Papua New Guinea is a Christian, which completely underpins the culture,” explains University lecturer Theresa, who has come to be part of the Community of Practice meeting, seeking inspiration for her gender and social studies lectures.

“But most have only a shallow understanding of what the Bible really says about men and women. It’s enough for many men to believe their marriages are ordained by God, or that they are superior to women. In reality, there’s so much more to what the Scriptures say about the equality of men and women. Understanding this properly changes everything.”

Watching the group grapple with what advice a Pastor should give to the couple is an interesting experience.  Earlier, a Bible study by Rev Dr Seforosa Carroll has unpacked a passage from Matthew about turning the other cheek – a concept that for decades has been part of the powerful brew holding faithful women captive in abusive marriages. Rev Dr Carroll, however, explains that in the culture of Jesus’ day, rather than passively accepting or inviting further violence, ‘turning the other cheek’ could quite literally have created a radically different dynamic between two people and restored a sense of equality and dignity.

The interpretation opens new possibilities in the room and creates a buzz that spills over into discussion and controversy around the case study. For some, the issue hits close to the heart. Women here have left abusive marriages of their own and are raising children while helping other women find safety from violence. This is no idle hypothetical. What’s certain is that for everyone in the room, this teaching of Jesus – fully explained, beautifully illustrated  – has real authority and currency to change lives.

UnitingWorld is continuing to support the development of resources to teach Gender Equality Theology throughout the Pacific. If you’re interested in seeing a copy of the Bible studies or helping provide invaluable financial support for the project, please get in touch. We’d love you to join us on this exciting journey with our partners!

Gender Equality Theology Community of Practice activities are supported by the Australian Government through the Papua New Guinea–Australia Partnership.

UnitingWorld hosted its annual five-day workshop on Gender Equality Theology in early November.

Led by Pacific theologians Rev Dr Cliff Bird and Siera Bird, ministers from partner churches across the Pacific met in Nadi, Fiji, to wrestle with biblical themes of equality and anti-violence. They discussed how principles from the Bible can be powerful forces for positive change in their communities, where violence against women continues to be a significant problem.

Participants expressed their appreciation for what they learned throughout the week and committed to taking the knowledge back to their home churches.

“The teaching tools have given me more clarification for deeper biblical analysis and identifying the root-causes of social issues,”  said Rev Tomasi Tarabe, New Testament lecturer at the Davuilevu Theological College in Suva.

“I hope UnitingWorld continues to work with Pacific theologians on developing a methodology of reading and interpreting the Bible through our cultural lens.”

Participant Victoria Kavafolau, a theology student and newly appointed head of the Women’s Desk for the Tonga National Council of Churches, spoke about how her expectations for the event were turned around.

“Before I participated in the Gender Equality Theology workshop, I thought ‘oh, this is just another program advocating women’s rights.’ To be proven wrong was an understatement… Not only did it raise awareness about violence against women and children, but the workshop provided tools and resources for theologically interpreting and identifying gender equality within Scripture and how we can apply that to our relevant contexts,” said Victoria.

“This is an important area within our respective Oceania communities to be addressed and enriched. We are in a different era now with different worldviews and contexts. Our cultural values and customs often deter us from developing further perspectives on gender equality.

This program has impacted me at a personal level and has encouraged me to address this growing issue within my Tongan community. With the aid of UnitingWorld and the tools and resources they have provided me, hopefully change can be implemented according to the will of God. Praise be to God.”

 

The Partnering Women for Change project is supported by the Australian Government through the Pacific Women Program. 

 

Photo: Victoria Kavafolau (right) with UnitingWorld Program Manager Megan Calcaterra and Rev Lima Tura, a previous UnitingWorld scholarship recipient who is now a lecturer at Seghe Theological Seminary in the Solomon Islands. Photo credit: Megan Calcaterra.

UnitingWorld has facilitated a forum in Fiji to bring together civil society groups, faith-based agencies and educators from across the Pacific to discuss the role of biblical interpretation in progressing human rights and gender equality.

The two-day forum, held over 9 and 10 April at the Pacific Theological College, was designed in response to requests by Pacific civil society organisations (CSOs) that wanted to help widen the conversation on how biblical themes of gender can promote equality for all.

Representatives from 19 CSOs, faith groups and universities representing Fiji and the broader Pacific region made up a diverse group for the forum.

UnitingWorld has been working alongside Pacific churches to explore biblical themes of human relationships based on equality. The work is part of a project supported by Australian Aid within the Department of Foreign Affairs ‘Pacific Women Shaping Pacific Development’ initiative.

A major aspect of the project is facilitating theological discussions with national church leaders, Christian educators, church ministers and lay leaders, women’s fellowship organisations and youth to re-examine biblical messaging about the inherent equality of men and women as created equally in the image of God.

This has also meant a process of unlearning old patriarchal gender interpretations and opening fresh views on human dignity founded on biblical equality. Through this vital work, social issues such as violence against women, girls and children are then addressed through the lens of this biblical understanding, and churches are both challenged and empowered to be key agents of change.

“The aim of this forum was to bring church and civil society together as a unified mission to address issues surrounding gender inequality,” said UnitingWorld’s Associate Director for Pacific Programs, Bronwyn Fraser.

“It opens the discussion on resourcing to better work collaboratively to overcome the hurdles often experienced when addressing important but sensitive gender issues.”

“The resulting connections, networks and opportunities for working collaboratively across agencies is vital for long-term effective transformation.”

While the forum was interrupted by the threat of Tropical Cyclone Keni, significant progress was made by the conversations to open avenues for collaboration and to identify what resourcing and support UnitingWorld can direct into the CSO space on gender equality and the elimination of violence against women, girls and children.

CSO representatives who attended the forum were happy the conversations with churches and FBOs went so well.

“The forum was very important because it enabled us to discuss issues that we usually do not talk about with the different church denominations,” said Matelita Seva–Cadravula, Executive Director for Reproductive Family Health Association of Fiji.

“It will be very helpful in addressing bottlenecks within the church with regards to gender and human rights. We will certainly utilise the approach during our community outreach.”

Mr Tura Lewai, a representative for the International Planned Parenthood Federation, said greater collaboration between churches and CSOs over past years has already stated bearing fruit.

“To actually have the affirmation and support by the churches and basing it on the Bible will be a powerful tool for change. I already see the paradigm shifts happening as we use the tools with our member association, and them with their communities,” he said.

Ms Fraser says an added positive outcome of such forums is that they flow into other social issues.

“One of the very exciting insights from this forum for UnitingWorld is seeing that both churches and CSOs are grappling with other prominent social issues, such as teenage pregnancy and recognising and including people within LGBTIQ communities.”

“Another is seeing the powerful role that this theological approach can play in supporting and resourcing CSOs, FBOs and churches in working for broader transformation in communities.”

Ms Seva–Cadravula agrees.

“We would love to see the same theological approach for sexuality and sexual and reproductive health,” she says.

A follow-up forum is planned for May this year.

In September 2016, UnitingWorld facilitated a workshop with the Presbyterian Church of Vanuatu (PCV) on Gender Equality through Theology. The theological teaching was facilitated by Rev Dr Cliff Bird, a prominent Pacific theologian and UnitingWorld Regional Coordinator, as well as Cliff’s wife, Mrs Siera Bird. Both Cliff and Siera equally led the teaching, modelling the theology as they stood side by side. The workshop was coordinated by Elder Martha, the PCV Gender Project Officer. Elder Martha’s husband is a local ‘big man’ in his village; a village leader with local power, authority and respect. Elder Martha’s husband attended the workshop as well, working in the kitchen providing the food and refreshments for the participants – traditionally women’s work. This change in roles had a strong impact on all the participants. After attending the workshop, one of the participants decided to put the theology they were learning into action. He got up early one morning, even before his wife and prepared the breakfast for his wife and family. This was the very first time he had ever done this. He had always seen it as his wife’s role to serve him. He served his wife breakfast and gave her the double share, usually reserved for him as the ‘head of the house’. During the workshop that day he reported that he had done this as he now recognised that his wife was equal to him in God’s eyes but had not been treated as so in the home. His wife then stood beside him and shared how this seemingly simple action represented for her, a revolutionary change.What may seem like a very small thing can herald hope and the promise of transformation for women in the Pacific. It’s not just theology, it is a mandate for action and even the smallest actions have impact.