Women, Development and Empowerment: A Pacific Feminist Perspective
THE WOMEN'S CRISIS CENTRE IN SUVA, FIJI
THE WOMEN'S CRISIS CENTRE IN SUVA, FIJI
The Women's Crisis Centre (WCC) became operational in August 1984. The founding group met in 1983, when women of various races, nationalities, religions and ideologies, got together and voiced a concern about the number of sexual attacks on women in and around the city of Suva.
The group was concerned about the total lack of support for women. There was no official body to provide help, so the women decided to work towards providing such a service themselves. The result was the Women's Crisis Centre.
The Centre is funded by donations and by small grants, occasionally from the government. It is a charitable trust affiliated to the National Council of Women. However, the National Council of Women has not provided much help to the Centre; the WCC however still wished to be affiliated to the NCW.
Presently, the centre is made up of about 30 women, mostly locals and some expatriates. Its aim is to continue to increase the number of local women members, and the Centre constantly works to this end.
The Centre operates as a collective body, and found it operated best in this way. Each member has an equal voice and major decisions are arrived at in a democratic way. All members of the Centre are volunteers, except for the Co-ordinator and the Secretary. The Co-ordinator makes most of the day-to-day decisions and is the primary spokesperson for the Centre, arranging publicity, etc. The two paid members - the Secretary and the Co-ordinator -are also members of the Collective. The Collective assessed itself constantly and if, at any point, it is felt that the page 38 Collective idea was not working, the Centre would change its structure. So far, the Collective has worked very well.
The main function of the Centre is to provide a support service to women and children who had been or were victims of violence, rape, wife bashing, child abuse, and incest. It is open from 9 to 5, Monday to Friday, and provides a 24-hour telephone service made possible through a diverted call system which ensures that a counsellor is at the other end of the line, 24 hours a day.
The service is completely confidential, free and available to all women and children. It provides psychological and emotional support through counselling. Women on the counselling roster undergo a basic training programme in counselling, conducted by a trained counselling psychologist. The trainer is leaving but three of the Collective have been trained to take over from her.
Counsellors accompany a victim, if she wishes, through police and court procedures. The Centre provides her with information on other services available to her and on her rights. A victim could also be referred to a place of refuge, which is a short-term arrangement. Individuals in the community provide safe-houses for women. The Centre also assists in finding alternative long-term accommodation, which is difficult. The Centre offers full support for whatever course of action the woman decides to take. The woman is encouraged to make a decision for herself.
The Centre also has conducted self-defense classes, which it is trying to continue. The Centre does not offer religious counselling, because it is not prepared to do this. If a woman wants religious help, however, she is referred to an appropriate agency. The WCC also felt it was important not to undertake religious counselling because the Centre wanted women from all religious backgrounds to feel free to come to the Centre. Also women who were desperate enough to come to the Centre did not need religious counselling at that moment of crisis. In its two years of counselling and seeing over 200 cases, the Centre has not had any case of women asking for religious page 39 counselling.
Other aims of the Centre are to develop an extensive community education programme and increase community awareness of the problem of violence against women. This has been done through information dissemination using posters and pamphlets and through media contacts, public teaching, conducting of seminars in schools, colleges, and in women's groups and other community groups.
Research into the circumstances, dynamics, and magnitude of sexual and domestic violence, is another priority. The Centre hopes to house a valuable library of information on the subject which could operate as a community resource centre. A fair amount of literature has been collected and is being used by government organisations. The Centre hopes to eventually have some influence on the judicial procedures because women have very little legal protection in Fiji. [Following the coups in Fiji in May and September 1987, the judiciary has been particularly unstable. The Fiji Women's Rights Movement, which works closely with the Women's Crisis Centre, is looking at this area.]
Contribution to the Community
Assessing the project's contribution to the community, the Centre's view is that rape and violence do not just affect women but they affect all of society. In two years, the Centre has attended to 200 women and children who belong to all races and socio-economic groups. The WCC has been able to avert a few suicides and some child abuse. Media coverage in Fiji recently on the issue of violence shows heavier sentences passed and comments by judges and magistrates. The Centre feels it is making some headway and had raised community awareness on the issue of rape and violence towards women and children.
The Centre and “Development”
Though the Centre might not be contributing to “development” in the sense of economic growth or being involved in any redistribution of wealth, the Centre is page 40 providing a valuable support service for women and, with the Collective, is making decisions and running the Centre on a shoe-string budget. The project is working well in the face of opposition from men and women also.
The Centre has also made inroads in the medical, legal and police areas. Officials who would not previously come near the WCC or its workers, are now offering to assist the Women's Crisis Centre.
One problem is finance - finding finance to continue existing is a consistent constraint on the Centre. Much valuable time is spent on writing funding proposals and doing public relations work to get money. A proposal has been submitted to the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA), for two years funding. The UNFPA proposal, which needs government support, has been in Government hands for 14 months in 1987. [The funds have still not been forwarded at the time of publication, 1989]. The UNFPA has agreed to fund the Centre and has budgetted for two years, but the Government has rejected the proposal twice, forcing the Centre to re-submit it again. At this time, no definite answer or reason for refusing the proposal has been given. The Centre has heard from the former President of the National Council of Women that the Government did not like the word “crisis” as “crisis” gave Fiji a bad name. Fiji's image as a paradise is contradicted by the existence of a “crisis” centre.
The Collective refuses, however, to page 41 compromise on this point and to change its name. They are angry because it had taken the Centre a long time to establish itself.
Within the organisation, personality clashes and different perspectives exist, including on feminism. The Collective tries to iron out these difficulties. There are some women who were opposed to feminism. The Centre has gone to great lengths to explain that it is not a feminist organisation consisting of men-haters. Sometimes, this appears to be a false image because in dealing with battered women daily, it is difficult not to form a certain dislike of men; the WCC work also affects our relationships with men. Women in the Centre have had their views changed by their work: for instance, no longer thinking that if they as individuals are okay, everyone is okay.
The WCC is seen as a threat in Fiji. The WCC is not a group of women who had got together because they had nothing else to do. The Centre is “hitting at the very heart of the oppression of women”.
Shamima added a comment on her experiences in the project:
Meeting a woman smiling, talking and in good health after seeing her walk through the doors a complete wreck - physically and emotionally abused three months before - that to us means improving her living conditions and raising her status. It means we have come a long way and it justifies our existence.
Questions and Answers
Q: Was it part of the WCC's continuing education programme to educate men?
A: Yes. The WCC goes out and talks to service organisations. The Centre does not talk to the husbands or men directly involved in page 42 cases, except through use of the media and by writing on violence, hoping that these men will read the articles. The WCC does go to men's organisations, such as the Rotary Club, the Lions Club, the Medical School, and the Police. When the Police are training new recruits, they call on the WCC to talk to them. The Centre also carries out workshops on the treatment of rape victims.
One idea was to go to the Raiwaqa Housing Authority (a high density urban housing complex) to carry out workshops but the women feared the danger they might put themselves in if the males present got together and harassed them. The WCC members have received phone threats and threats from people who come to the Centre. These threats continue.
Q: How do you treat women who go back to their husbands?
A: The women at the Centre have no powers to control that - unless the legal system were to change. We had a case of a woman whose husband had been beating her for the last six years, ever since she got married. She was brought in by her niece who wanted the Crisis Centre to tell the woman to leave her husband but the Centre could not/did not do that. The woman concerned wanted to give the man a second chance, so the Crisis Centre went to the public legal advisor (now a woman - a plus point for the Centre) and she wrote a letter to the man suggesting possible legal action. The letter helped the woman considerably, even though it was not legally binding. If powers were legal, these could help more women.
Q: The reason I asked is that in some places, the man beats his wife and one can do nothing about it.
A: That is one of the things the Women's Rights Movement is pushing for. At the moment, when a domestic matter is reported, for page 43 example, wife bashing, the woman has to press charges and it is up to her. Then the case is classed in the general category of domestic disputes. If the woman drops the charges, that ends the case. The WCC and WRM is pushing for the matter (a man beating a woman) to become a police case, whether the woman reconciles or not.
Q: Is a large percentage of cases dealt with at the Centre rape cases and wife abuse?
A: The Centre was actually set up as a rape crisis centre, but the women involved right at the beginning realised that many women were being bashed up, and a lot of children also, and that is how the Women's Crisis Centre came into being. Rape is still an under-reported crime in Fiji and still a very taboo subject which many people refuse to talk about. In two years, the WCC has had about 12 cases of rape, of which only 4 had been reported; it has dealt with about 200 cases of violence, with 100 cases being wife bashing.
Q: What about incest and child abuse?
A: In two years, only about four cases were referred to the WCC by teachers.
Q: Does the WCC have a close relationship with the school system as well?
A: Yes. A few teachers have joined the WCC and through them, contact has been made with schools.
Q: Why did the WCC decide to have workshops in Raiwaqa - a high density urban housing area?
A: Most of the rape cases are from Raiwaqa. The Centre has also had women from the Raiwaqa community privately reporting rape cases. page 44 The Centre has been told of two women who were in hospital, who had been gang raped five times. The attitude of the police has been “Oh, it happens all the time” and so they have not bothered to pursue the cases. A traditional practice is also being used to smooth over the matter: a tabua (whale's tooth - a traditional offering of high value) is taken by the people who committed the offence to the injured party and the rape becomes “a family matter” and is settled that way. The victim however, has no say in the matter, as the tabua is presented to her family.
It was also noted that the Fiji Government (March 1987) had wanted the Women's Crisis Centre to remove the word “crisis” from their name. This highlighted a point made earlier that the people who control the institutions in society, who have the powers, can use these for their own purposes. It was suggested that progressive (or ‘radical’) women's organisations perhaps paid too much attention to women's organisations that did not want to be associated with the feminist women's movement, because they viewed feminism negatively. For progressive women, it might be more important to continue working to try to educate and explain issues, not just to conservative women, but to the community. Remaining in contact with conservative groups was important, but progressive organisations should not do this just to appease opposition.
It was pointed out it was the activism, not just the feminist ideas of progressive groups, that was sometimes considered threatening. Governments were also fearful of activism. Both women's organisations and the government were uncomfortable sometimes if the institutional framework of society was challenged.