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The end of maybes and onlys


Frances Viwa is determined to help break the cycle of violence against women in Fiji. Australian volunteer Sally Chapman inspired her to begin. This is their story.

AVID volunteer Sally and Fiji Red Cross volunteer Frances Viwa.

They stand in a line against the wall, each with his eyes closed so he cannot see the other men smirk, or perhaps cry. Opposite them, the women stand silently, watching.

Frances Viwa begins in a halting voice that grows stronger with each sentence. "Imagine a man walks into the engineering building of Fiji National University with a semi-automatic rifle. He separates the men students from the women. He begins shooting the women. 14 female students are killed, another 13 are wounded. He does this because he believes he wasn't accepted into engineering school because of the female students."

Nobody opens their eyes, but there's outrage in the room.

Frances continues. "This didn't happen in Fiji. But back in 1989, it happened in Canada. This was the start of the White Ribbon Campaign."

She goes on to tell the men about the shooting, known today as the Montreal Massacre, and how it galvanised a group of Canadian men to stand up and speak out against such violence, leading to the global White Ribbon campaign where men work to change the attitudes and behaviours that contribute to violence against women.

Frances asks the men to imagine how they would feel if it were their sisters, their friends, in that university. And she reminds them that the attitudes and behaviours leading to such violence are disturbingly close to home.

A second voice joins in, Australian-accented. "Violence against women is widespread in Fiji. The Women's Crisis Centre says that 80% of women have witnessed violence in the home; 66% of women have been physically abused by their partners; 48% of married women have been forced into sex by their husbands; and 13% of women have been raped."

Frances picks up again. "If you are willing to make the White Ribbon pledge and act according to it - to swear never to commit violence against women, never excuse and never keep silent about violence against women - then open your eyes now."

Most eyes are open now, in more ways then one. Solemnly, Frances hands each man a white ribbon pin and the men recite the pledge aloud together.

"The idea was to invite them to commit to the pledge on their own, without seeing what the other males were doing," Frances explains later. "After that, some of them were asking for more white ribbons to give to their friends. And some of them were very quiet; later they would come up and talk to me about different kinds of violence against women."

Frances is a volunteer with Fiji Red Cross, working in the first aid shop and providing support to the logistics team. Since she began working with Australian volunteer Sally Chapman, she has also become an advocate for gender equality.

Fiji Red Cross is getting serious about gender inclusion. As chief operating officer Chris Ho explains, "In the future I want to see gender woven into the whole fabric of what Red Cross does; not even a conscious thought but something we do, like a good habit."

Sally Chapman is in her fourth month as gender adviser with Fiji Red Cross, through the Australian Volunteers for International Development program. The program is an Australian Government, AusAID initiative, delivered by Australian Red Cross and other agencies.

One of Sally's first tasks was to coordinate 16 Days of Activism, a global campaign that runs from the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women on 25 November until International Human Rights Day on 10 December.

"For me the campaign was an opportunity to communicate important information on gender violence, sensitising colleagues while also linking the prevention of gender violence to the humanitarian mandate of the Red Cross Movement," Sally says.

Choosing to start with their own workplace, Sally and her colleagues delivered workshops on gender equality and human rights to Red Cross staff and volunteers. They also organised four workplace activities, each linked to a different key date in the campaign highlighting women with disabilities, women human rights defenders and family violence.

"The idea was to consistently reinforce messages about the prevalence and types of gender violence in Fiji, and the importance of men and women working together to eliminate this violence. The workplace activities, which were creative and participatory, enabled a high level of engagement by staff and volunteers."

Sally invited a female staff member or volunteer to plan and facilitate each activity. Frances, the advocacy lead for White Ribbon Day, accepted the role with interest that quickly turned to passion.

"The feeling when I was reading about the massacre actually brought me to tears," she says. "I thought of all the women who got shot that day - they could have been history makers, policy makers, made a difference in the world, but they couldn't because of a guy who shot them simply because they were women."

"And I looked at the men around me and thought 'I hope you're not like this!' - violent towards women or your friends."

It was Frances' idea to set the Montreal Massacre in a Fijian context, to have the men close their eyes so they wouldn't be influenced each other, but drawn by their own hearts to respond or not. "The boys I work with, you have to get creative, get their minds floating first!" she laughs.

Fired up by the success of the Red Cross event, Frances took the White Ribbon message to neighbouring workplaces, including the male-dominated Department of Land Use.

"We Fijians tend to make excuses for the person who's victimising someone else," she says. "We say to the victim, 'Maybe it's your fault'. And if the person gets really hurt, then we think, 'If only I had done something'. It's the maybes and the onlys. And the excuses have to stop."

The campaign has given Sally a keen insight into strategies for greater inclusion of gender in Fiji Red Cross activities.

"The most powerful part was that the content came from Frances and the other women who led the campaign activities. I might have helped with the research but it was all their voices."

The campaign led Frances to re-examine her own life and the impact she can have on others. "I actually grew up in a community where violence against women was the norm. I always thought that it was only violence if you were getting a punch, being beaten. But I came to realise that verbal abuse was another form of violence against women.

"Now I live in another community where it's all different. And I'm trying to impart to the younger generation that if someone does that to you, that's totally not cool and not right. You could report it and I have a network of friends who can help out.

"With Sally involving me in the 16 Days of Activism, it just brightened up a whole new world. Now I know what I can take back to my community to help them."

 

 

Photo credit: Australian Red Cross