IN our region, the predominance of the Christian faith cannot be denied. There are other religions of course and the freedom to observe your personal choice is perhaps one of the positives of life here. This is the more appreciated these days considering violent riots that erupt from faith-based tensions in some countries.
For those who peopled the region when the missionaries arrived, the process of understanding the concept that Christianity brought may have been made easy by the fact that most had spiritual ancestral gods. For Fiji for example, at the time, tribal wars, practices like strangling women to accompany chiefs in the underworld, cannibalism, hanging children from masts of canoes were part of the ceremonies then conducted.
With Christianity, the people changed the way they viewed and valued life and eventually ended them but it had to be a fundamental shift in the individual's worldview as Christianity merely provided an enabling environment and guidance to a new culture. It certainly began with an individual change because one had to consciously decide to stop participating in cannibalistic rituals for example or a leader would have had to consciously stop the strangling of women.
Culture is never static — we create our own and it is up to us which practices we continue and which we stop for whatever reason. Historical anecdotes underline the critical role that this faith-based organisation played in weaning a people of practices which we now cringe at. Last week, we were able to share with participants of a regional workshop on gender-based violence organised by the Pacific Council of Churches,UNFPA's guideline on working with faith-based organisations (FBOs). You will appreciate how precarious a relationship like this can be when considering our mandate areas — family planning and maternal health, adolescent sexual and reproductive health, gender equality and reproductive rights, and population and development.
The UNFPA recognises however that faith-based organisations are the oldest social services providers in the world. In this region, missionaries came with education and health services and to this day you will find our countries dotted with schools and hospitals owned and administered by FBOs.
The UNFPA has no illusions about the mammoth influence FBOs wield in our region; we know how much FBOs influence the formation of or the change in people's worldviews. We recognise for instance that FBOs play a critical role in encouraging practices that will contribute to the end of the ironic situations of women continuing to die giving life, the more that they are for the most cases, preventable deaths.
After three decades of working with FBOs, the UNFPA carried out a global mapping survey that identified more than 100 different partnerships with Christians, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu organisations in over 75 countries. FBOs shared their experiences, lessons learned and success stories, they provided recommendations for better service delivery and contributed to the Global Interfaith Network on Population and Development which was launched in Istanbul in October 2008.
Referred to as the Istanbul Consensus, this commitment to the realisation of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) agenda acknowledges the fundamental principle that faiths share, and that is to safeguard the dignity and human rights of all people, women and men, young and old.
Speaking at the opening of the roundtable in Istanbul, our executive director then Mrs Thoraya Ahmed Obaid said UNFPA believed that working with FBOs had to be "systematic, deliberate and focused" and it had to also be "studied, informed and tactical". Studies have shown that faith leaders are willing to listen to issues that are otherwise taboo in their cultures, if presented in a sensitive manner.
We understand that there are aspects of our mandate that may not exactly be "comfortable" for faith leaders to be discussing in their churches but then there are areas in which collaborations can still be as effective. For example, for FBOs taking advantage of our data for development expertise so interventions can be a lot more strategic and thereby, effective.
Sharing our experience at the gender-based violence workshop for churches which was hosted by the Pacific Theological College hopefully gave an idea to participants of how UNFPA works with the media but more so, how we can work together with the media as a partner, towards the elimination of the societal scourge of violence against women and children from our culture.
Pacific island governments we work with have signed numerous international instruments, fundamental of which is the Declaration of Human Rights. They would have also been one of the 179 countries which signed on to the ICPD Program of Action in Cairo (Egypt) in 1994. Then there's the Convention of the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Gender-based violence that continues in any country therefore is a violation of numerous aspects of human rights. UNFPA has confidence in FBOs to contribute to changing the culture of this region into a culture that is free of violence.
In 2011, the UNFPA Pacific Sub-Regional Office organised the regional Consultation on Advocacy for Population and Development in the Pacific marking a new movement for a triangular leadership alliance involving FBOs, traditional chieftainship and state leaders. One of the key focus areas identified by participants was the need for stakeholders to provide evidence-based advisories.
There is room for taking advantage of a commitment like the above for improvement of data collection, analysis and dissemination to support evidence-based advocacy. Using this one example, one can see the mutually-beneficial aspect of such a relationship — we both know that our actions are based on evidence and therefore our development interventions or spiritual guidance should, at least in theory, be effective.
On February 14, this Thursday, a global event known as "1 Billion Rising" hopes to place on the global agenda the issue of violence against women. The organisers want to remind the collective conscious of humanity of the chocking reality that one in every three women would have been raped or beaten in her lifetime.
Participants will "rise" against the atrocity of violence against women with their — families, communities, churches, non-government organisations, yoga class, etc to "dance". The idea is that dance is, among other interpretations, an expression of liberation. In Fiji, there will be a march and dances performed collectively to commemorate the occasion on Thursday.
In the introduction of their book Half the Sky: How to change the world, the first married couple to win the Pulitzer Prize in Journalism, Nicholas D Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn share their belief that while the moral challenge of the 19th century was slavery, it was the fight against totalitarianism in the 20th century and in this 21st century, it will be the struggle against gender inequality around the world.
Just as we as humanity have changed our cultures by shaming abhorrent practices like slavery and cannibalism to oblivion, there is no reason why we cannot do the same with gender-based violence, especially against women and children who are the survivors and victims in majority of the cases.
And in this process, UNFPA has faith in FBOs to be the vital bridge to the people: afterall, we all want a culture free of violence, where people regardless of sex, creed or ethnicity, enjoy with dignity their basic human rights, in mutual respect.
* Dirk Jena is the director and representative of the United Nations Population Fund Pacific sub-regional office. The views expressed are his and not of this newspaper.