Changing hearts and minds: Preventing Violence Against Women in Fiji’s Faith Settings

Date: Monday, September 13, 2021

Author: Miho Watanabe*

As a community activist with House of Sarah, Alisi Dari uses tools adapted from the SASA!Faith toolkit to discuss power and violence with community members. New Town, Suva. Photo: UN Women/Miho Watanabe
As a community activist with House of Sarah, Alisi Dari uses tools adapted from the SASA!Faith toolkit to discuss power and violence with community members. New Town, Suva. Photo: UN Women/Miho Watanabe

Suva, Fiji — “When we eat, men get a bigger portion. If there’s something left in the pot, women get that little portion. Even women took that as normal - that’s the way we were brought up,” says Reverend Jone Tuiwaiwai, a pastor at the Anglican Church in Wailoku Parish, Suva.

“In the eyes of God, both men and women are given power. We are all equal. But how some people interpret the Bible is misleading, giving men more power, which brings violence,” says Reverend Tuiwaiwai. “There are things God gave us that we cannot change, but our social roles are not one of them. We can change them.”

Main photo, showing two Fiji men present their note in a workshop
The initiative uses faith-based approaches to suit the three Christian communities. Newtown, Fiji. Photo: House of Sarah/Josefata Waqalala

Reverend Tuiwaiwai is one of many faith leaders and activists working to prevent violence against women and girls with House of Sarah’s Preventing Violence Against Women in Fiji’s Faith Settings initiative, which started in 2018. A faith-based NGO, House of Sarah is supported by UN Women through the Pacific Partnership to End Violence Against Women and Girls (Pacific Partnership), funded primarily by the European Union, the Governments of Australia and New Zealand, UN Women, and co-funded by the Fiji Women’s Fund (also supported by the Australian Government).

“We had already conducted training in the community to prevent violence,” explains Reverend Sereima Lomaloma, Founder and Trustee of the House of Sarah, and senior faith leader. “But violence continued because women were the only ones taking up the learning, not the rest of the family. The whole family needed to change. The whole community needed to change. But it wasn’t happening,” she explained.

So, when the opportunity arose for House of Sarah to partner with UN Women to carry out the internationally recognised SASA! Faith approach to preventing violence against women, developed by Uganda-based organisation Raising Voices, Reverend Lomaloma welcomed the chance. The SASA!Faith approach has been proven to reduce levels of violence against women, and Fiji is one of many countries around the world adapting and implementing it.

Reverend Jone Tuiwaiwai (left, in red shirt) and other church leaders participates in ecumenical interactive Bible studies focusing on Bible texts that deal with violence against women, held in Suva by House of Sarah on 3 December 2015. Photo: UN Women/Ellie van Baaren
Church leaders participated in ecumenical interactive Bible studies focusing on Bible texts that deal with violence against women, held in Suva by House of Sarah on 3 December 2015. Photo: UN Women/Ellie van Baaren

Using faith-based approaches to change social norms

The community-led initiative is being piloted in three Christian communities in Fiji: St Mark’s in Newtown; St Michael and All Angels in Matata; and St John the Baptist in Wailoku. The project aims to create a community that rejects violence against women altogether and to prevent it from happening. Based on Biblical teachings, community members influence each other to reshape the power imbalance between men and women that drives violence and transform social norms that accept violence as 'normal'.

“You first examine the Bible,” says Reverend Lomaloma. “You take people back to what the Bible says about men and women being created equal. When you’ve done that, you bring in gender issues, then the penny just drops.” says Reverend Lomaloma. Taking a fresh look at the scriptures is expected to change attitudes and mindsets, which in turn will result in changed behaviour.

During this first phase of the initiative, the project team supported church leaders to examine power dynamics in relationships and reflect on how they could influence their faith communities. The team also worked with clergy members to develop Bible-study programmes about human rights and unequal power relations between husbands and wives. This power imbalance is the root cause of violence in the home.

Learning about the biblical text through the project was the turning point for Tomu Dari, a community activist. His wife, Alisi Dari, introduced the initiative to Tomu, who often used violence at home before the project began. “We are brought up to listen to the pastors, to follow God, and to obey His teaching,” explains Tomu. “So, when we learn the biblical texts, and when the pastor digs deeper into the teaching, we follow.”

As one of 37 community activists, Tomu now passes the teachings he has learnt on to other men in his community – though it’s not always easy. “When I see men on the road, I invite them for tea. When I see men having kava [a traditional Fijian drink], I buy them one. That’s how we start the conversation. You try three or four times, and they finally listen to you. It takes time.”

The project aims to reach the same people repeatedly and using the SASA!Faith toolkit, filled with thought-provoking questions and teachings from the Bible, walk them through a step-by-step process of attitude and behavioural change over four years.

No longer abusive himself, Tomu now creates waves of influence among the men and boys in his community. “If I can change, they can. I spread the message so that they can spread the message to others. And I’m proud to be a part of that change.”

Tomu Dari (centre) visits a job site to reach out to other men and boys, encouraging them to challenge harmful masculinities and the use of violence in New Town, Suva. Photo: UN Women/Miho Watanabe
Tomu Dari (centre) visits a job site to reach out to other men and boys, encouraging them to challenge harmful masculinities and the use of violence in New Town, Suva. Photo: UN Women/Miho Watanabe

Empowered to seek help

As part of the initiative, the prevention work is complemented by providing access to essential services for women and girls experiencing violence. “When the project was introduced in churches and our community, women were enlightened. For the first time, women were empowered to take the first step to seek help,” exclaims Luseani Leba, a member of Sarah Carers, small groups of dedicated women who have undergone training to help women in their communities at risk of, or who are experiencing, gender-based violence.

Sarah Carers act as first points of contact for those wanting information on available services and help survivors of violence gain access to essential services through referral. “I serve anyone who comes to my doorstep,” confirms Leba. “I always give them options [of services]. I don’t decide for anyone. She decides.”

“God calls women and men to leadership. God calls each one of us,” preaches Reverend Lomaloma. “In this project, it is the community themselves who make the change.”

Following a positive evaluation, the Preventing Violence Against Women in Fiji’s Faith Settings initiative was recently recommended to continue beyond its 2022 end date to ensure sustainability of the new knowledge and practices that it is introducing to Fijian communities. Through strategic partnerships with faith leaders, and those in the education, sport and employment sectors, UN Women has been working to prevent violence against women and girls in Fiji.


Edited by Lisa Smyth Contributors: Reverend Jone Tuiwaiwai, Alisi Dari, Tomu Dari, Luseani Leba (House of Sarah), Reverend Sereima Lomaloma, Alisi Qaiqaica (House of Sarah), Shazia Usman, Shabina Khan (UN Women) and Michelle Reddy (Fiji Women’s Fund)