The Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre’s flagship Regional Training Programme (RTP) was held in June in Suva, with 40 participants from Fiji, Kiribati, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Tonga and Vanuatu.
Palauan advocates Mr Wilson Subris and Mr Vierra Toribiong attended the month-long course aimed at helping participants develop a better understanding of gender equality and the causes of violence against women so they can respond appropriately in their workplaces. Many participants are police officers, some of whom work in the sexual offences units, while others work at women’s centres, in government ministries, local government, correctional facilities, churches and NGOs.
Mr Subris is a Spiritual Health Coordinator with the Ministry of Health’s Behavioural Health Department, while Mr Toribiong works with the Ministry of Community and Cultural Affairs, creating awareness on the Family Protection Act. Their participation was supported by Pacific Women.
For both men the course was an “eye opener” as it made them examine the daily inequalities experienced by women and the patriarchal systems that reinforces this; gain a clearer understanding of feminism and gender; and recognize why gender inequality is harmful for both women and men in the long run.
“It’s about control. Men usually like to control what women do and expect women to comply with what they want. Its common both among younger and older men. Men socialise, spend all their money on drinking and overlook responsibilities towards their family and this is when the tension arises. They clash with their wives who try to address their bad behaviour and instead of using other means to address the problem, men use violence,” said Mr Subris, who works directly with perpetrators of domestic violence through court ordered counselling.
“Since the Family Protection Act was passed, our Government has been trying to respond to the needs of the whole family, which includes the victims of violence, usually women and children, and the perpetrators, mainly men who are husbands and fathers. In the six months I have been working there, I have yet to encounter a situation where the perpetrator of domestic violence has sought help willingly. When they come in, they usually don’t believe they need help. Although they have different personalities, all these men have the same attitude where they think they can just change if they want to without counselling. Obviously, it’s not that easy and there is so much more work to be done in changing their attitude towards women and violence and also strengthening the counselling program.” Mr Subris became a trained counsellor in 1997 and has been working with the Bureau of Public Health since 2009 on a wide range of counselling programs.
For Mr Toribiong, ending violence against women is a personal mission as it’s something he grew up seeing as a child. Through his social work, he has visited the 16 States in Palau with the country’s only Judge that handles domestic violence cases.
“We teamed up and went to all the States and created awareness on the Family Protection Act. As soon as we were done the number of calls that started coming in on reports of domestic violence went from nothing to hitting the roof even until today. They knew there was a law in place but they didn’t know what was in it and how to report cases until we explained it to them,” said the former probation officer.
Attending the course also provided both advocates an opportunity to clear misconceptions around gender, feminism and theology.
“This training is unique. Before this the only other type of training that I had attended dealt with addiction in general and how to provide counselling for that. The unique thing that I learned here is the link between gender inequality, violence against women, and society’s attitudes around it. The impact of that on me has been huge. When I came in I was fearful because I was not ready to have my spiritual beliefs challenged, as I am a strong follower of the Bible. I thought the training might try to change me. But it didn’t. This training does not challenge the biblical word but challenges how the word has been interpreted and used. It’s largely being misused to demean and control women, which is putting women and children at a disadvantage. That was shocking for me to realise. During the four weeks many issues came up, challenging my narrow experience of looking at the biblical word. I was challenged to just look at where I am, where I was and provide a bigger picture, a more accepting picture. I am very excited and I want to be part of the group of people making the change,” shared Mr Subris.
While listening to Ms Shamima Ali’s (Coordinator of FWCC) session on feminism, Mr Toribiong realised that he had never really taken the time to look up the definition of the word, and thought it was a synonym for “femininity”.
“I had a different vision of what the word meant. And then I sat there and got educated by Ms Ali and realised that I am a feminist! Even my whole idea of gender was wrong as I was just thinking of it as sex – so being male and female. I was angry at myself for being so ignorant. I should have made the effort to Google it and read about it prior to this. We don’t do enough of that.”
For Mr Toribiong, one of his biggest learnings from the course and one which he hopes to use to improve his work, is ensuring confidentiality in the counselling process.
“I deal with a lot of young people, both girls and boys and one thing I want to change when I go back home is try and secure an office space to make sure that confidentiality is not being overlooked. We only have a few counsellors and it’s so hard for us Palauans to ask for help because everyone knows each other being a population of only 20,000. Who wants to go and share their emotions with others, only to have it known at the other end of the island in two minutes? I wish we had more counsellors who came with this training. Other things I have learnt is the difference between hearing and listening and how to read between the lines of what that other person is trying to tell you.”
FWCC’s Regional Training Programme was first held in 1995 with just five women from Fiji, Vanuatu and PNG. Twenty-one years later it is considered by international donors and agencies to be a best-practice model of training in the area of gender awareness and eliminating violence against women.
Course topics include gender and violence against women, including domestic violence, rape and sexual assault, sexual harassment and child abuse; religious and cultural justifications for violence against women, counsellor training, international human rights law and national laws in the Pacific relating to violence against women. Participants also learned about methods of advocacy and lobbying as a way to advance the work of eliminating violence against women, including a session on how to use the media.