It's a great pleasure to be here with friends from Solomon Islands at the launch of the UNFPA/World Vision Australia report, A mapping of Faith Based responses to Gender-based violence.
My reflections today are drawn from very recent, direct experiences of faith-based responses to gender-based violence in the Pacific context.
I was fortunate to be in Solomon Islands roughly three months ago for the commemoration of White Ribbon Day on 25 November, known internationally as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and also the start of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence.
I attended the Official Church Service held at St Barnabas Anglican Cathedral (the Church of Melanesia) to mark the day and listened to a powerful sermon on the intersection of faith, the practice of respectful relationships and the elimination of violence against women and girls.
Father Gerald Porowai who led the service had been through Channels of Hope training and used materials from it to deliver his sermon which was broadcast across Solomon Islands on national radio.
And I had the pleasure of spending time in the World Vision office Honiara and talking with Fred Sikini.
As someone whose life was turned around by the Channels of Hope project – Fred's is a very powerful testimony and we are fortunate that he is with us today to talk about his experiences.
Gender-based violence – the Solomon Islands and Pacific context
Most of us here are familiar with the statistics regarding sexual and gender-based violence in the Pacific, it is probably worthwhile to do some general scene-setting for today's panel discussion.
In 2012, the World Bank ranked Solomon Islands among the worst countries in the world for sexual violence against women. Research shows that 64 per cent of women (nearly two out of three) aged over 15 have been sexually abused by an intimate partner.
Thirty-seven per cent of women aged 15-49 have reported they experienced sexual abuse when they were under the age of 15 and 18 per cent reported being physically abused by a non-partner.
There is some variation in the percentages across the Pacific, but the broad trends are the same.
This treatment of women occurs in a part of the world where Christianity is the dominant faith.
As many as 90 per cent or more of populations in most Pacific Island countries and territories identify as Christian. In Solomon Islands, the figure is 92 per cent.
In countries like Solomon Islands, people place extraordinary trust in their faith leaders, as well as their political leaders, and these leaders have a far-reaching ability to promote the status of women, to shift attitudes and to support key interventions to address violence against women.
So faith-based organisations are important social institutions, setting normative standards and playing an important role as agents for change, providing critical health and welfare services and other development support, and supporting key interventions to address violence against women and girls.
As the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon said during a recent symposium on The Role of Inter-faith Dialogue in Peacebuilding and Women's Empowerment, "Peace, dignity and respect for others are core values common to all of the world's great religions...Faith-based organisations can challenge prejudices and support the full participation of women in political, economic and social life by refuting attitudes that perpetuate inequality."
In a similar vein, I note recent reports from the Pacific Conference of Churches which is currently underway in Honiara at St Barnabas Anglican Cathedral.
At a pre-assembly event for women, female church leaders called on churches to address violence against women and children in their constitutions and to create support services to enable survivors of abuse to seek help in a safe environment.
These are important recommendations.
Australia's work to eliminate violence against women and girls in the Pacific
Australia has zero tolerance for violence against women in Australia and internationally.
We recognise violence against women in Australia is a serious issue and are working to strengthen efforts to prevent and respond to violence through our National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children.
Our aid program invests in strategic initiatives consistent with our vision that women and girls should live free from violence and the fear of violence.
It is centred around three key outcomes:
- Violence against women is prevented
- Women have access to support services and
- Women have access to justice.
We are working towards these goals through our bilateral programs, through our contributions at a multilateral level, for example through the UN Trust Fund to End Violence Against Women and through UN Women's Critical Services Initiative.
And we have recently launched a major regional program to support gender equality in the Pacific, the Pacific Women Shaping Pacific Development Initiative.
A significant element of this $320 million, ten- year program is work to prevent violence against Pacific women and girls and to provide support for survivors.
This program will support the commitments made by Pacific Leaders at the August 2012 Pacific Islands Forum where they launched the milestone Gender Equality Declaration. In the declaration, Pacific leaders pledged to act to end violence against women.
In Solomon Islands, Australia is working actively with the Government of Solomon Islands and other partners to eliminate violence against women and girls.
We support the Channels of Hope project in Honiara and will fund an expansion of the project into two provinces from April this year.
And in so doing, we are building on strong foundations. With UNFPA and the Secretariat of the Pacific Community, we supported the Government of Solomon Islands to undertake the 2009 Solomon Islands Family Health and Safety Study.
As a result of this survey, the Government of Solomon Islands adopted a National Policy on Eliminating Violence Against Women and an associated action plan.
Our partnership with Solomon Islands Government to promote gender equality is immensely important both at a bilateral level and internationally as Australia and Solomon Islands both joined the Executive Board of UN Women in January this year.
In closing, I'd like to quote from one of the representatives at the recent Pacific Conference of Churches Women's Pre-Assembly meeting. Asena Naisara of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Suva told the assembly, "Some of us have grown up with violence against women in the home and it's time for us to break that cycle. If we don't stop the violence our grandchildren will sit here 30 years from now addressing the same issue.
The Mapping Faith Based Responses report is a vital resource in galvanising faith organisations in this important work and ensuring that Ms Naisara's call to action is heeded so we are not sitting here in 30 years time discussing the same issue. I'm delighted to participate in these discussions about the report's findings.