Ministry Officer for the Anglican Diocese of Polynesia, and cofounder of the House of Sarah, the Rev Sereima Lomaloma has raised the voice of Pacific Anglicans working to end violence against women, with presentations at two global forums.
Sereima presented on the experience of the House of Sarah, an organisation working in the Diocese of Polynesia dedicated to helping women, children and men to live lives free from violence.
The two high-level roundtable meetings were hosted by the European Commission and by the US Episcopal Diocese of New York’s Task Force on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault and Office of Congregational Vitality and Formation.
Part of the 16 Days of Activism on Gender-Based Violence for 2021, both meetings (on 25 November and 1 December) aimed to inspire and encourage faith communities as they develop concrete steps to mobilise legal and political backing for women’s rights and practical support for survivors of violence against women.
Speaking to around 80 people joining the ECUSA interfaith roundtable, Sereima explained the House of Sarah’s three-way approach to ending violence via faith community education:
1. Caring for and advocating the rights of survivors of intimate partner and family violence
2. Studying the biblical, theological and cultural foundations for equality and nonviolence
3. Building a faith community that actively supports and encourages women and men to strive for relationships, families and homes that are marked by respect, dialogue and cooperation.
Presenters at both forums named violence against women and girls as a global emergency equivalent to the Covid-19 pandemic, but which operates as a ‘hidden pandemic’.
“No country, no state, no community is immune from violence against women. It occurs across all ages, racial, ethnic, social, and religious demographics.” said the statement from the Diocese of New York’s interfaith event.
Many speakers shared how national and regional lockdowns had exacerbated the existing limits to women and girls’ freedoms in their nations, saying that police and military enforcement of lockdowns had made it harder for girls and women to escape abusive parents, husbands or partners, as travel restrictions made leaving the family home or region illegal.
Sereima explained that as the pandemic affected life in Fiji, the House of Sarah had moved its workshops out into rural areas, to train local advocates on how to use new referral pathways as they found assistance for victims of violence during the pandemic.
At the same time, the House of Sarah’s workshops have focused on preventing violent behaviours – looking hard at how biblical passages about women and men had been misinterpreted and led Christians into gender discrimination.
“The response to these workshops has been very positive,” said Sereima
“The studies are very eye-opening to the participants.”
Sereima explained that in the House of Sarah’s context in Fiji, almost three out of four women who had been in an intimate relationship has experienced physical or sexual violence from their partners.
In Fiji, that means 66% percent of women. Considering that in Fiji too, around 64.4% of people are Christians, churches have one of the strongest voices when it comes to changing ideas of what is acceptable.
Sadly, intimate partner violence is so prevalent in Fiji that it is normalized in social life – and is even normalized by some preachers – so Anglicans in three Fijian parishes are taking a radical stance in teaching a different way to understand and approach relationships.
Rev Sereima explained how the House of Sarah trains local women and men to act as community activists, that over time will lead their parish communities towards a norm of equal relations between women and men.
“In our churches we are promoting partnerships that elevate respect and communication as the more godly way to behave.”
At the European Commission’s online forum on ‘Engaging with Religious Actors on Gender Inequality and Gender-Based Violence’, Sereima explained how change was beginning to show as a result of the House of Sarah’s last five years’ of work.
As well as carefully going back to the biblical texts on power between women and men, Sereima said asking faith leaders to speak out publicly about gender-based violence is critical to changing attitudes.
“Faith leaders who speak out against violence can be a powerful force in reshaping beliefs and behaviours towards gender equality – and by making it clear that any violence against women and girls is unacceptable at both the individual and community levels.”
Sereima says it was a big step when Fiji’s church leaders broke the silence on gender-based violence, when back in 2016 several Fiji Council of Churches leaders, including Archbishop Emeritus Winston Halapua and Catholic Archbishop Peter Chong, spoke out publicly in the One Voice Campaign. This was followed by leaders of the Hindu and Muslim faiths in their own 2018 public messages calling for an end to family violence.
That awareness raising on gender-based violence followed the next year into the now annual Break the Silence Sunday. Sereima believes it is no mistake that with the very important work of the Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre over the last 26 years, and now with the faith leaders supporting them publicly, many more women and girls are reporting abuse and violence perpetrated against them,
“There’s more reporting….in the media and to the Police.
Gender-based violence is talked about in public spaces now, which is very encouraging.”
Today the Catholic Archdiocese of Suva has also committed to training men in ministry to be male advocates against gender-based violence, with Catholic Archbishop of Suva Peter Chong in the forefront of that work.
More recently in 2020, the House of Sarah reached out to work with the Pacific Conference of Churches in Tonga, and then this year in Samoa, to produce the same One Voice Campaign messages fronted by local faith leaders and televised in their countries.
Rev Sereima Lomaloma ended with a clear message for all faith communities, including her own Anglican Church,
“Never underestimate the power you have to work for change in your communities...
The engagement of faith communities in the prevention of violence is essential.”
The Rev Sereima Lomaloma has been a priest in the Anglican Diocese of Polynesia since her ordination in 1995. She served as the Director, Department for Women at the Ministry for Women, Culture, & Social Welfare in the Fiji Government for over a decade. During her government service, she founded the Women's Social & Economic Development Programme (WOSED), a pioneering microfinance scheme for women in Fiji. Co-founder of the House of Sarah, today Sereima acts as one of their strategic advisers and is a trustee. She also serves as a member of the Anglican Communion's Safe Church Commission.