Sunday, October 6, 2013

Creating Safe Communities of Faith

Many religious leaders, when asked for comments by the media, speak out against gender violence. Yet how are we addressing the issue of violence in general and in particular violence against women and children within our communities of faith, mata-siga and bible-study groups etc?

In a society that holds dearly to religious values that promote peace, justice and the greater good, the question needs to be asked: what are we doing to stop violence from destroying our homes and our communities?

One of the critical areas that has been needed is the training of clergy, church workers and lay leaders in not only understanding the issues surrounding violence against women and children but also how they can impart this knowledge and lead their congregations to eliminate violence against women and children from the pulpit and within the community.

How do religious organisations to respond to violence in the home and the community in a country where close to sixty percent of the population claim to believe in and follow the teachings of Jesus the Christ, who uplifted and empowered the status of women?

The South Pacific Association of Theological Schools (SPATS) is an organisation that is not only responsible for the accreditation of theological training institutions in the region but also in developing curricula that address the important emerging issues of our time. It is an ecumenical partnership of 29 schools of the South Pacific basin compromising of 15  islands including Australia and New Zealand as its associate members. 

SPATS challenge is to bring together a multi-lingual, multi-cultural and geographically scattered membership.  The twenty-nine member schools are spread across the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean, from Tahiti in the east to Vanuatu in the west, from the Marshall Islands in the north to the Aotearoa in the south.  The area encompasses the three major Pacific regions: Micronesia, Melanesia and Polynesia.

SPATS seeks to commit itself in three main core values:

1.       Ecumenism  -  Value the mixture of Christian traditions stated by the Member Schools in understanding creative relationship in theological education among theological institutions.
2.       Quality Education - Enhancing and training for higher education by improving common practices and standards. 
3.       Leadership Training - Upholding the significance of leadership as a fundamental goal in its dominated ministerial formation of theological education. It is a tool for institutions to accomplish their church missions in developing skills for lecturers and students for future church leadership roles. 

So far SPATS has developed two training manuals for addressing HIV and AIDS as well as one for on the issue of disabilities. Through its WEAVERS (Women Doing Theology) programme it has also worked on developing a training manual on the Church and Violence Against Women. 

Yesterday (Tuesday) an important step was taken in the struggle to face something often unspoken in the context of church life in Fiji, with the launch of the iTaukei/Vosa Vaka Viti version of the training manual on the Church and Violence Against Women.

The manual has already been translated into a number of Pacific islands languages.

The launch of the iTaukei/Vosa Vaka Viti version of  the manual is an important step in addressing this uncomfortable issue in worship services, prayer meetings, and teaching programmes in places of worship as well in religious education classes in school.

Many churches and other religious organisations have Men’s Fellowship groups and youth groups. These are also important forums and spaces in which to seriously discuss the role of men in perpetrating and, more importantly their role in preventing all forms of violence against women.

The manual was launched by the head of the largest Christian group in Fiji, Rev. Tuikilakila Waqairatu of the Methodist Church in Fiji.

Earlier this year, Rev. Waqairatu spoke at a regional workshop on eliminating gender-based violence, acknowledging that was, “legitimised by many cultures, institutions and some Christian groups in society and its effects are extensive in nature.”

He was quoted as saying that the church “must create a climate of openness and develop policies and procedures which keep children and the vulnerable safe from harm.”

I acknowledge that many Christian churches and other faith-based organisations are meaningfully engaged in this issue. At the same time the newly translated manual will be an important tool in elimination of gender-based violence.

Having worked with the English language version in educating would-be ministers at Davuilevu Theological College, I have witnessed first-hand the change in attitudes to the issue of violence against women and children as students worked through the manual.

While the attitude of ministers and pastors towards this issue is important, at the same time this manual is not piece an overly academic literature but has facts, explanations and provides a biblical and theological understanding for Christians to work together at all levels of the community to understand and overcome violence against women and children.

“Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity”

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