SUVA, Fiji – On this year’s International Women’s Day, as rain pelted down on Fiji’s capital city, a large group marched through the flooded streets. Even the loud claps of thunder didn’t silence the women, men and children who had come out to support the Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre. The organization’s leader, Shamina Ali, gave a rousing speech as everyone cheered.
Ali has been tackling domestic violence problems in Fiji for the past three decades. Thanks to the Crisis Centre’s efforts, the government launched the country’s first national domestic violence helpline in March this year, urging women – as well as male relatives and friends – to step forward and report cases of violence against women. Soon after, the calls started streaming in.
Recent studies conducted by the Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre show that 64 percent of Fijian women are subject to domestic violence in their lifetime. Ali says that percentage increases to 72 percent if you include all forms of domestic violence, including physical, sexual and emotional abuse.
Though Fiji passed a domestic violence law in 2009, Ali says few cases are reported or prosecuted. She blames the country’s patriarchal society, along with the influence of conservative religious values and militarization during the country’s successive coups. “Women who are suffering from domestic violence are often forced to reconcile, and made to feel guilty about bringing shame to the family,” she says.
And she also points to a newer, more surprising, factor that has started to exacerbate Fiji’s high domestic violence rate: climate change. Last year, Fiji was devastated by the strongest cyclone ever to hit the Southern Hemisphere. Climate scientists have found that changing temperatures led to the Category 5 storm, which destroyed or damaged more than 30,000 homes, displaced more than 150,000 people and affected 350,000 people.
In the disaster zone and in evacuation centers, women faced more violence and harassment, according to U.N. Women. After the cyclone, many families who lost their homes had to move into makeshift evacuation shelters or tents. Even a year later, yellow and blue tents dot the Fijian countryside in areas ravaged by the disaster.
In these shelters, men, women and children lived in cramped quarters after the cyclone. “There was a lot of sexual harassment of women. There were some rapes, some reported, a lot not reported,” Ali says.
“The men and women in families were staying together, so the women and girls felt very unsafe. While a lot of men helped women get to a safer place, there were also cases of women asking for shelter and men demanding sex in return,” Ali adds.
As Fiji faces a future full of climate change catastrophes, including rising sea levels and increasingly intense storms, women are at greater risk of domestic violence and harassment.
“It’s going to get worse for women,” Ali says.
“Men, when they feel helpless, when they’ve lost everything, they feel disenfranchised, and they’re not able to do what they’re supposed to as men. So, they take out those frustrations,” she says. “The women and the children are the most vulnerable, and they’re the ones who get the brunt of it.”
After the Cyclone
The Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre operates four branches, including one in Ba, a province that was hit hard by last year’s mega-cyclone.
Shaireen Mohammed heads up the Crisis Centre’s branch there, where she also counsels women. After the cyclone, she says women in the area faced greater domestic problems.
“[The men] were just sitting there, while the women were more active in trying to build a home and put food on the table,” Mohammed says. “A lot of emotional violence also came up in those times.” During the difficult recovery period, women often re-built their lives without any help.
The Crisis Centre’s Shamima Ali says this sometimes caused jealousy among men.
“Women pick up the pieces very quickly because they’re used to doing that all the time. Also, the women were being trained to respond to trauma within the community. Some men felt like the women were taking over, and that led to domestic conflicts and sometimes violence,” Ali says.
Taking Perpetrators to Court
The Crisis Centre remains by a woman’s side from the time she reports a domestic violence incident to the court case and beyond, if necessary. Ali says the system is set up to accommodate cases of abuse, but things rarely go the way they should.
In theory, “a woman can take out a domestic violence restraining order,” she says. But women are often turned away when they try to report an abusive male.
“It takes a woman a lot to go and report after many, many beatings,” Ali says. “When she gets the courage to report, this kind of a response discourages women from reporting. So she’ll drop the charges.”
Shaireen Mohammed says the Crisis Centre staff provides free, confidential counseling, and accompanies women to the police station or even to court.
“In the beginning, they cannot speak up for themselves,” Mohammed says. “But, after counseling sessions, women are able to assert their rights and they try to do things on their own.”
The counselors’ work remains difficult, given that domestic violence is largely considered a part of daily life in Fiji. “There is a lot of acceptance of violence here, Mohammed says. “On a radio talk show, men were labeling us as marriage breakers.”
“They don’t realize that women also have rights. They think it’s a foreign concept that has been brought in.”
Still, the Crisis Centre is hopeful they can change minds one at a time. Verenaisi Naitu, a branch counselor in Ba, says it’s critical to educate men. “When they go through our male advocacy program, some men totally change and realize whatever they’ve done in the marriage all these years is wrong,” Naitu says.
Naitu says her own husband changed his ways after she took him to court for hitting her. She hopes her work can help other Fijian women do the same.
Sonia Narang reported in Fiji with support from the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF).