Twenty-five years on, Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre stands as beacon of hope for women

Since the first counselling session that August in 1984, and operating from only two rooms at Butt Street Methodist Church in Suva, more then 17,000 women have walked through its doors seeking the centre’s services. And as it celebrates its anniversary this month, the fact that they are still around after 25 years is indeed a source of encouragement and empowerment for women.

Ruby Taylor-Newton spoke to Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre Co-ordinator Shamima Ali on its history, functions and future plans.

Q: How old is the Crisis Centre?

A: It is 25 years old this year.

Q: When and how did the centre start?

A: It started in August 1984 and opened its doors for the first time in two rooms at Butt Street Methodist church.

It started when a group of women became concerned about the number of rape cases reported by the media and the comments that were being made by the courts and police blaming women for the rape.

So women from all walks of life, NGOs, lawyers and nurses started meeting and discussing the setting up of a rape crisis centre. At that time the YWCA had already published a report on rape and the law in Fiji.

Based on that report and quick surveys around the country the women realised there were no support services for survivors and the myths surrounding rape were very much alive, for example, women asked to be raped by their dress and behaviour and it is always their fault.

As they looked deeper into the issue and talked to women around Suva they realised that in fact there were no support services for any form of Violence Against Women (VAW) including domestic violence.

So they decided to set up a Women’s Crisis Centre that would cater for all forms of VAW. Out of the initial group of about 80 women, a core group remained and started planning.

This group was made up of both local and expatriate women who had worked in Rape Crisis Centres overseas including the Salvation Army, the Presbyterian Church and women community workers.

They decided that a centre was going to be set up and the core business was to offer non judgemental empowering counselling with a feminist (women’s human rights) approach.

In August 1984, it was registered as a charitable trust with about 20 volunteers.

It was organised and paid for by these twenty volunteers as a feminist collective.

Q: What are its functions and how does it carry them out?

A: The centre is based on the core principles of human rights, democracy and the rule of law. The core business is counselling advocacy and support for survivors of violence.

Since the early days, the centre deals with rape and sexual assault, domestic violence, sexual harassment and child sexual abuse.

The centre had to take on children also because there were no counselling services for children who had been sexually abused and there still remains very few counselling services for children.

The centre has also over the years developed strategies to deal with many other women’s human rights issues.

Secondly, Community Awareness and Advocacy – A lot of this happens through requests from various organisations and through forming alliances with rural and island communities.

Thirdly, lobbying and advocacy – The centre is very strong on this, using the various forms of the media and other strategies to bring about policy and legislative changes.

This is to ensure that women have access to justice as well and that there are sensitive laws and policies regarding women.

Fourthly, regional networking – The Pacific Women’s Network Against Violence Against Women was set up in 1992 at the first regional meeting discussing VAW in the Pacific. The centre provides in-country training for network members including PNG, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Nauru, Marshall Islands, Tokelau, Cook Islands, Tonga, Samoa, New Caledonia. The centre also runs 4-week trainings twice a year in Fiji for men and women around the Pacific region so that they can better respond to the issue of VAW and related issues such as HIV/AIDS, poverty, human rights and development. It also has a mentoring and advisory role for network members who are working towards the elimination of VAW.

Fifth, research – The centre conducted the first national research on Violence against Women in 1999.

The research showed that 66% of women interviewed had been hit by their partners and 44% of women were hit when pregnant.

Research was also conducted in 2001 on the impact of the 2000 coup on women. The centre also has a library which has a collection of feminist, gender and human rights books.

Q: Who benefits from the FWCC?

A: The primary beneficiaries are the women and children. Because of the socio-economic human rights costs of VAW and children, awareness and prevention benefits communities and the nation as a whole.

Q: What is the response from local women to the centre’s work?

A: In the 25 years, more then 17,000 women have walked through our doors seeking the centre’s services. Many others have attended workshops, meetings and conferences. We believe that for women the centre is a beacon of hope.

There have been few women along the way who have shown hostility to our work but there are thousands of others who have supported us through financial or other means.

For example, the first marches used to attract between 10-50 people, usually women but now marches like Reclaim the Night March have hundreds of men, women, youth and children marching together to end VAW.

Q: What values does the centre promote for women?

A: Basic human rights, equality, respect and dignity and to be treated as equal citizens of Fiji regardless of ethnicity, gender, abilities, sexuality and age.

Q: How successful has the FWCC been in being a voice for women over the years?

A: The centre has used the media to cast light on the violence that women face in their homes.

Domestic violence, sexual assault and child sexual abuse were regarded as very private matters in the past and the centre has brought these issues out into the open and onto the national and now regional agenda.

The recent Pacific Islands Forum meeting in Cairns has made a commitment to eliminating sexual and gender based violence in its communicae.

These issues have always been highlighted from a human rights perspective which ensures that women have human rights and violence against women is a violation of these rights.

The centre has also worked with stakeholders to change attitudes towards survivors of violence and to promote zero tolerance to VAW.

Many more organisations including faith based organisations have put the elimination of violence against women on their agenda.

Women’s human rights issues in Fiji is often associated with the FWCC.

Even men have accessed the Crisis Centre for human rights violations against them. It has developed itself into a credible human rights organisation.

Despite all the opposition to women’s human rights in a culture and religion bound society we have managed to survive and continue offering the services that we were established and expanding over the years to deal with emerging issues.

Q: Does the WCC get the support and appreciation it needs from men in Fiji?

A: Since 2001, the centre has conducted male advocacy for women’s human rights for a number of men from Fiji and the Pacific.

The centre has also received requests for community education and awareness from male community leaders and institutions such as the police and military, a sign that violence against women and children is a major issue that needs to be addressed.

The centre has received support from men for activities such as the Reclaim the Night March and we have used strategies and outreach to create awareness for men.

However, the violence that women face by men is a sign that there are men that are yet to change their behaviour and attitudes to acknowledge the rights of women.

There is still a lot of work to be done.

Men can personally examine and change their own attitudes and behaviour towards women, challenge their peers and other men about the acceptance of violence against women and publicly show support for the work of the Crisis Centre.

The Crisis Centre is also willing to conduct and provide training, workshops and materials for men upon request.

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