TODAY is International Women’s Day (IWD), an opportunity to celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women because visibility and awareness help drive positive change for women and also to declare bold actions to help progress the gender agenda because the purposeful action can accelerate gender parity across the world.

Last year, organisations and individuals around the world supported the #PledgeForParity campaign and committed to helping women and girls achieve their ambitions, challenge conscious and unconscious bias, call for gender-balanced leadership, value women and men’s contributions equally, and create inclusive flexible cultures. From awareness raising to concrete action, organisations rallied their people to pledge support to help forge gender parity on IWD and beyond.

However, the World Economic Forum predicts the gender gap won’t close entirely until 2186. This is too long to wait. IWD is a reminder that we can all be responsive and responsible leaders in creating a more gender inclusive world.

Being bold

The theme for International Women’s Day this year is #BeBoldForChange.

Bold steps call for bold thinking, and bold commitments and bold actions.

Bold thinking requires us to shift our thinking — to be willing to consider.

It also requires the boldness to have conversations, talanoa — boldness to listen and let others speak, boldness to speak the truth in love, to name instruments and structures of violence, inequity and patriarchal attitudes.

Bold actions include creating safe spaces and empowering those who come to these safe spaces to share their pain and their hopeful visions. It means stepping up and stepping out of comfort zones to accompany others in their quest, to protect those still in vulnerable unequal relationships in society, in work, in the community, in church or in the home.

IWD five years ago

On IWD five years ago (2012) in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, the European Council of Religious Leaders (ECRL) and Religions for Peace (RFP) issued a statement on Restoring Dignity: A Commitment to End Violence against Women underlining that violence against women is wrong and religions must support the dignity and full human rights of women, particularly in helping to stop violence and discrimination against women.

The religious leaders committed themselves to engage religious communities to prevent acts of violence against women and mobilise the compassion of religious communities to help, care for and heal survivors of violence. They further committed themselves to engage men and boys in the prevention of violence against women, and advocate for changes in public policy and opinion that contribute to violence against women.

It is poignant that this statement was issued in a place where rape and violence against women were used as a weapon of war.

Rape camps

During the conflict in the former Yugoslavia between 1992 and 1995, it is estimated 12,000 to 50,000 women and girls were raped range. The vast majority were Bosniaks raped by Bosnian Serbs. The Serb forces set up “rape camps” where women were repeatedly raped and only released when pregnant. Gang rape and public rapes in front of villagers and neighbours were not uncommon. Throughout the conflict, women of all ethnic groups were affected, although not on the scale that the Bosniak population suffered.

Violence against women and girls is still widespread in Bosnia and Herzegovina and often seen as socially acceptable behaviour justified by traditional patriarchal concepts that limit the roles and status of women. However, there are now comprehensive programs run by UNWomen to address violence against women and girls in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

In their statement, the ECRL and RfP said:

* Violence against women is wrong. Religions must support the dignity and full human rights of women, particularly in helping to stop violence against and the discrimination of women;

* Religions recognise the fundamental dignity of every woman and man. We know-each according to her or his respective religious tradition — that the true dignity of every woman is given by and rooted in the sacred. This dignity is inviolable. It is not given by cultures, states, societies, communities or individuals. It cannot be taken away by them. But the recognition of this dignity must be “restored” whenever it is violated. It must be actively respected, honoured and protected;

* Violence against women is prevalent. It occurs in public and in the privacy of the home. It is unspeakably hurtful to women. It impacts women in all their roles, including as mothers. It also damages families, communities, and ultimately all of us;

* Violence against women includes rape and its use as a weapon of war, the practice of forced marriages of young girls, the bearing of the brunt of extreme poverty and the selective aborting of unborn females;

* Some have misinterpreted their religious traditions as supporting patterns of violence against women. We — together with our respective religious leaders — reject this. Honesty calls us all to acknowledge that violence against women is wrong;

* Eliminating violence against women is a religious duty. Doing so will also nourish all of us for healthier and more fulfilling lives; and

* Peace is central to our diverse religious traditions. Violence against women is an assault on peace. All religious people should work to uphold and restore the dignity of women.

The religious leaders committed to:

  •  Work to engage religious communities to prevent acts of violence against women;
  •  Mobilise the compassion of religious communities to help care for and heal survivors of violence;
  •  Engage men, boys and women in the prevention of violence against women; and
  •  Advocate for changes in public policy and opinion that contribute to violence against women.

Local churches

In December last year, leaders of the largest Christian communities in Fiji spoke with one voice to say that gender-based violence was “a sin”. The Fiji Council of Churches has already established a working group to address violence against women – both personal and structural, which has already begun to look at how churches can collaborate and share resources towards a focused campaign within the Christian community to reduce violence and increase equity for women.

Just over a month ago, I had the privilege to be a panellist alongside other religious leaders at an Interfaith Search Fiji discussion on “Our Faiths’ Response To Violence Against Women And Children”. All faith communities present committed to take a public stand and participate in community efforts to address this injustice.

According to the panellists, no religion has teachings intended to discriminate against women, who highlighted how their respective religions call for the equal treatment of every human being, regardless of their gender.

However, even with it being said that religions praise equality, there is discrimination in reality.

So if violence and sexual assault against women and girls are still prevalent, as well as discrimination against women, there is a need for bold behavioural changes which are key to ending these practices.

We must be bold enough change and challenge those attitudes that insist woman is a baby-maker, a cook or someone whose only place is in the house. We must be bold enough to change and challenge attitudes that dehumanise and objectify and sexualise women. We must be bold enough to change and challenge attitudes that perpetuate the belief that a woman’s dignity is only valid in relation to a man — as a mother, sister, daughter, wife — rather than as a human being created equally by God in God’s image.

If our faith communities believe violence and abuse in relationships are never justified, we must be bold enough to challenge any legitimisation of this injustice.

“Simplicity, serenity, spontaneity.”

* Reverend James Bhagwan is an ordained Methodist minister and a citizen journalist. This article was published in the Fiji Times Online on Wednesday, March 08, 2017. To view this, Click here!!