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Partnering Women for Change (Pacific Region)

“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.