Kirsty Johnston is an investigative reporter at the New Zealand Herald.

Hidden Pacific: Women in Solomons struggle to escape male violence

The Herald and World Vision want to raise $100,000 for the urgent water and sanitation needs in the Hanuabada village of Port Moresby. Each day we'll be reporting on a particular problem for the region and showcasing how World Vision has helped. Today, how women are coping with male violence.

The day her husband burned her clothes on the front lawn, Anastasia finally left. She took nothing but her passport and her baby, fleeing to the immigration office for help.

"I borrowed from my friend for a bus fare. I told Immigration that my husband is always doing things like that. I told them I really wanted to find a safe place for me, I didn't want to go back."

The Immigration officers sent Anastasia to the only place they knew would be safe - The Christian Care Centre on the outskirts of Honiara, both a counselling service and the only Women's Refuge in the Solomon Islands.

Anastasia is 26. Originally from Samoa, she met her husband at university in Apia and moved to Honiara to live with him. Things quickly went downhill as she struggled to adjust to the new culture and her husband became more and more controlling.

"He didn't hurt me. But he's the kind of man he never allows me to go out and live or go with friends and have fun.

He just wanted me to stay home. If I came home late, say 6pm, he would get angry, saying I never did the right things," she says.

"I was inside a small tiny box. Trying to reach out."

Anastasia's story is one Sister Phyllis Margaret Sau has heard many times before. Each year hundreds of women arrive at the door of the Christian Care Centre where she is the co-ordinator, each escaping a controlling or abusive husband, or brought there by the police with injuries caused by assault and rape.

Gender-based violence rates in the Solomons are extremely high. Two out of every three women have experienced physical violence from an intimate partner.

Almost 40 per cent of women report their first sexual experience as having been forced. More than 60 per cent believe it is acceptable for men to hit women in certain circumstances.

"They turn up here with bruises, broken arms, black eyes," Sister Phyllis says. "Sometimes the police send them. Sometimes they walk the whole way."

The Anglican nuns run a 20-bed refuge for abused women and girls deep in the jungle on the outskirts of Honiara.

To get there you need a 4WD as the roads are treacherous, often flooded. A bus stops close enough that some women are able to make their own way there, if they know where it is.

On arrival, new clients are met at the gates by one of the sisters, who sleep close enough to the entrance that they can watch whoever turns up. They are offered hospitality and rest, and later counselling and rehabilitation.

"Hospitality is the main thing," Sister Phyllis says. "When they come to the centre and feel it's [safe] and that they can move freely and relax, it makes a difference in their lives."

The centre is bordered on one side with a river, the other with a gleaming white sand beach. It is a collection of smaller thatched huts and larger concrete dormitories, a small classroom and a chapel.

Sister Phyllis Margaret Sau says the centre's work is mentally and physically exhausting, and often dangerous. Photo / Mike Scott
Sister Phyllis Margaret Sau says the centre's work is mentally and physically exhausting, and often dangerous. Photo / Mike Scott

There are six staff, who wear blue-checked shift dresses and white habits, and who slip their sandals off and on as they go between the buildings, skirting puddles from the recent downpours.

Sister Phyllis has been at the centre two years, as requested by her order. She spends her day organising her clients' medical needs, cooking or gardening, and in counselling with the women.

"We try and help them by talking to them. Sometimes they find it difficult to speak about what happened to them because they are so traumatised," she says.

"So we be sensitive and try to get the feelings out, for them to be healed. If they keep the hurt inside themselves it's going to hurt them."

The work can be risky. While the centre's location is supposed to be a secret, by now it is well-known in the Honiara community.

To avoid the men trying to find their wives or daughters, the sisters travel with the clients by night, and the place is on lockdown at all times. It does little to deter the husbands, however.

"It can be scary," sister Phyllis says. "Some come with a sober mind and really want to see their wife and children and want us to help them. But some come and they're so aggressive and scary.

"Sometimes they come with knives or a piece of iron or wood. Sometimes you can look in their eyes and see they're fierce."

Recently, a man came with a machete and slashed at the gate in anger, leaving deep gouges in its wood.

As the sister is showing us the damage, two men arrive in a ute, wanting to come inside. She calmly orders them to wait, and shuts the door, sliding the iron bolt into place.

"Sometimes we are scared. But we don't run and hide because their wives are in here. We stand on behalf of their wives. We face the perpetrators," she says.

"We must always think we don't do the service for our own, we do it for somebody, for God. And we depend on him to give us confidence to face these fierce men."

The causes of gender violence in the Solomon Islands are complex, but begin with the idea that women are inferior.

Michael (not his real name) explains it like this: "First is the Spirit. And then man, then dog, then woman, and then pig.

"Women are thought to be lower than almost everyone else."

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Patriarchal systems in the Solomons reinforce the dominance of men in almost all aspects of public and private life.

Women aren't allowed to travel without the permission of their husbands.

Men cannot be alone with a woman, even in a professional setting. And less than 2 per cent of parliamentary candidates are women, with only three female MPs elected.

Experts believe one of the strongest drivers of inequality is a custom called bride price.

Men use traditional forms of currency, such as shell or feather money, to "purchase" a bride. It is considered similar to buying property, giving men ownership over women.

A recent report from the World Health Organisation found the custom tended to "encourage men to 'control' their wives, often through violence, while women felt that bride prices prevented them from leaving men".

The beliefs embedded by the local culture are further complicated by Christianity.

More than 95 per cent of the population are Christian, and while faith leaders are among the most influential members in many communities, a recent World Vision report found their interpretation and the resulting application of religious texts has been detrimental to gender relations.

"In some instances religious text, such as biblical scripture, has been used to validate practices that perpetuate women's marginalisation and subordination within their families and communities," the report read.

To address those issues, World Vision has introduced its Channels of Hope programme in the region, which challenges faith leaders to re-examine the Bible and challenges negative attitudes towards women.

"We say to the church leaders, let's look at what the Bible really means. Does it really say women are inferior?," says World Vision gender specialist Jackson Tasa. "It's about how everybody is created in the image of God and how we should respect each other."

For Gwen Rarai, of the Sun Valley Channels of Hope Action Team, it's also about empowering women.

"The main challenge is the lack of education. Men think that women should just stay at home and look after the children and do the garden and the cooking. If they don't do that then man come come and question them," she says.

"This helps women speak up for themselves. And it helps the men. They say 'why didn't we know about this before?'"

The most recent evaluation of the programme, completed by researchers from the Australian National University, showed dramatic improvements.

The proportion of men who believed the Bible said "man is boss" fell from 83 per cent to 66. Meanwhile, only 4 per cent of women now believed women should not make decisions, down 30 per cent.

In conjunction with introduction of the Solomons Family Protection Act in 2014, Rarai believes the programme will set them on the right path. "I'm convinced we are going to eliminate gender-based violence."

The week before we visited the Christian Care Centre, a 6-year-old girl had been found on the side of the road by one of the nuns in Honiara.

She was being beaten by a man who turned out to be her adoptive father, when the sister spotted her and took her to safety.

Later, at the centre, the child described how she had been raped by her adoptive dad and two other men.

She is not the only victim of child rape when we visit. There is another girl, with a club foot, who has been abused by her brothers and cousins.

Both children are yet to go to court, where it is likely the sisters will become witnesses, as they have many times before.

"When the children come here they have usually been abused by the parents, especially the fathers," says Sister Phyllis.

"Children are referred here by the police, some by their relatives when they seen something at home that doesn't look safe for them."

Funding from World Vision went towards building a new dormitory for the abused girls, next to the women's area, but it is yet to be finished. The funding didn't quite go far enough, so for now, everyone is still crowded into the 20 rooms.

The women are only supposed to stay 14 days but it depends on their situation. Very often, particularly for the children, they have nowhere to go.

The centre nearly always has a full house. It not only means less privacy for the sisters, but more work, particularly for Sister Phyllis.

"By the end of the day I always feel tired. There's too many things. I work physically and mentally as well. By the end of the day I just want to have my own space," she says. The counselling is particularly hard.

"Sometimes I feel sad because I'm a woman as well. I see how they feel and feel with them."

The most difficult thing, however, is always the children.

"When they come in and we know they are raped by their own father. I just can't imagine it. It's their own child, their own blood and yet they abuse them like this," she says.

As we are talking the 6-year-old rescued the week before appears in the doorway behind us. She has huge brown eyes and short curly hair, her bare feet muddy from playing outside. Sister Phyllis tells her to look at my skirt, noting it is the same blue as her own.

Slowly, the child reaches out to touch the fabric, her tiny brown paw giving it a fleeting stroke before she runs away, laughing.

"Sometimes I think, I just don't understand this world," Sister Phyllis says, watching the child as she goes.

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- NZ Herald

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