Light at the end of the tunnel

By Karen Abplanalp

A remarkable theatre company in the Solomon Islands is challenging a culture of silence over the Pacific region's endemic violence against women and girls. Karen Abplanalp reports from Honiara

Stages of Change is creating a buzz in Honiara and internationally. Photo / Karen Abplanalp
Stages of Change is creating a buzz in Honiara and internationally. Photo / Karen Abplanalp

In the only women's refuge in the Solomons, two childhood friends reveal a secret hidden for more than 40 years. Ruth (not her real name) describes her shame at hiding the truth. Of having to lie about the beatings, destruction of her property and the psychological abuse she suffered at the hands of her husband and, later, her eldest son.

Her friend Leoni (also not her real name) is stunned to hear it. She too suffered similar abuse and has lived with the shame of lying to work collegues and her community for most of her life. They lied because talking about violence even among friends is taboo in the Solomons.

Witnessing these powerful women tell their stories is deeply moving. Their eyes fill with quiet tears as they describe their secret life of abuse. They are tears of deep sadness but also of relief at finally hearing each others' stories.

* A Stages of Change performance can be found on Facebook here.

There is a feeling of huge respect in the room. Despite the abuse and bearing it in silence, these women got their children through school (school fees are a huge burden for Solomon Island parents), had careers and both went on to run highly successful businesses.

The unburdening of shame comes during a Survivors of Violence workshop, part of a ground-breaking theatre project called Stages of Change.

The project, managed by the British Council, uses theatre to celebrate women and publically discuss violence and its impact on all of Solomon Islands society.

British Council NZ director Ingrid Leary says that while there have been other awareness-raising projects about violence, what tends to be missing is the engagement.

"People get tired of people lecturing them and many people don't read. Theatre offers a way of communicating that touches their hearts and involves their humanity. It is a level of engagement that is needed to break the cycle. Theatre also enables the whole community to be taken on a journey so that rather than being seen as confrontational or challenging culture, women can take the men with them in partnership."

The workshop is held in a lush tropical beachside setting half an hour from the nation's largest city, Honiara. The tranquil setting is at odds with the high barbed wire fence that encircles the country's only refuge from violence open to women and children. The secret haven is run by Sister Doreen, a tiny nun used to staring down challengers - men who somehow track the women she protects.

Sister Doreen.
Sister Doreen.

Over many years, Sister Doreen has worked closely with the police, courts, women and even the abusers themselves to eradicate violence. Her work has made her highly respected throughout the Solomons.

Leoni, from a chiefly family, speaks with a raw honesty. Despite her obvious pain, she has a strong sense of pride. "I was withdrawn in myself and not confident to face people because they talk," she says.

"I lived with the stigma that I was a bad person. Now, because of this workshop, I look people in the eye. There is light at the end of the tunnel."

Stages of Change, the Solomon Islands' first professional theatre company, is creating a buzz in Honiara.

The company is led by New Zealand-Fijian Nina Nawalowalo, from NZ-based theatre company, The Conch. She is an internationally acclaimed theatre director whose productions have included seasons at the Sydney Opera House and London's Barbican.

Nawalowalo creates a mix of contemporary and traditional theatre.

The costume and dance reminds the audience of the power and importance of women. This, combined with the portrayal of violence, brings total silence from the audience.

"When we present these images back to our men they are deeply moved. They see the long line of women who are their mothers and grandmothers going back to another time," she says.

Theatre company members Susan Galutia, Janet Nowue and Daisy Teho.
Theatre company members Susan Galutia, Janet Nowue and Daisy Teho.

British High Commissioner to the Solomons, Dominic Meiklejohn, says the group is ready to take a positive message about the Solomon Islands and its women to an international audience, adding that there is enormous interest in the company.

There are suggestions that the success of Stages of Change could lead to the launch of a National Theatre Company, and that the group will go to the Fifth Annual Melanesian Arts Festival in Papua New Guinea in June.

Eoghan Walsh, head of the EU delegation to Solomon Islands, has witnessed the company's growth over the last year. He described this month's performance in Honiara's museum auditorium as "quietly powerful" and "very moving".

"I was really impressed, the group has come a long way. There was a big crowd of Solomon Islanders with quite a few men it was one of the bigger turnouts I've seen for that venue."

Company member Susan Galutia, 27, admits she was really frightened the first time she went on stage. After being in the company for six months she feels she can now stand and speak confidently. "We have unique talents and skills. There are cultural barriers that say women can't stand out, but on the stage you can talk about subjects that are normally taboo."

She says that through drama the audience sees how violence impacts women's lives. Often after a performance, the audience will talk about the issues. Men have told her that women have the courage to stand up and do things that men can't, and they were surprised to see women doing this.

She echoes other members who say that being part of the company has not only given them new confidence in themselves but also in their work place. Many of the women are involved in advocacy work for NGOs, raising awareness about HIV, sexual consent, gender violence and promoting the significant role women play in Solomon society.

Janet Nowue, who works for the Solomon Islands Planned Parenthood Association (SIPPA), a partner of Stages of Change, says: "We want to use drama in our work because people are better at seeing things than getting too much information through talking. Many people we are working with have not gone to school so drama is a way they understand and enjoy the teaching."

Michael Salini, executive director of SIPPA, says the theatre group is a breakthrough for the country.

"Before this there was no such thing as theatre. Now there is excitement around each performance. I was surprised. Young girls going into theatre and coming out like that - full of confidence."

Terry Toney, Regional Director East Asia at the British Council, visited the Stages of Change company in Honiara this month. He was impressed by the confidence and artistic skills of the performers along with their stage presence.

The use of theatre in the transformation of the women was obvious to him.

"The most powerful thing for me is to see the grace and dignity the women show on stage."

The 990 islands that make up the Solomon Islands stretch for 1500km south-east of Papua New Guinea.

It is one of the least developed nations of the Pacific region and is perhaps best known to New Zealanders for the five-year civil war, which ended in 2003 with the arrival of an intervention force led by Australia and New Zealand.

The Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (Ramsi) officially ended its mission last October. While the Solomon Islands are on the road to recovery, high rates of violence against women and girls remains a huge problem.

• Karen Abplanalp visited Honiara with the British Council NZ and the support of British High Commission NZ.; a link to a Stages of Change performance can be found on Facebook.

- NZ Herald

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