Globally, roughly one in three women experience violence, but in many Pacific societies it is more like two out of three women, according to Professor David Tombs, principal investigator of the research project to strengthen the role of the church as an actor in the prevention of gender-based violence and in support of survivors.

The project is funded by the New Zealand Institute for Pacific Research, a unique collaboration between the University of Auckland, Otago University and the Auckland University of Technology.

While some Pacific churches are already involved in important initiatives, Dr Tombs says there is much more the churches can do to alleviate the issue.

“It’s been clear in the literature that the church is a huge part of this issue. There is a lot of previous research which identifies how churches can unintentionally support and sustain violence against women in the Pacific. Our focus in the project is how the church can be active as part of solution, not just part of the problem, especially in Samoa.

He and his team – project leader, Dr Mercy Ah Siu-Maliko (Piula Theological College and University of Otago); Co-Investigators – Dr Melanie Beres (University of Otago), Dr Caroline Blyth (University of Auckland); Research Assistant – Dr Ramona Boodoosingh (National University of Samoa) are exploring solutions through the project titled: ‘Fola le ta’ui a le Atua: Rolling Out the Mat of Scripture: Church Responses to Gender-Based Violence Against Women in Samoa: Supporting Church Capacity for Transformative Social Leadership’.

Dr Ah Siu-Maliko’s work as lead investigator has been very important to the project, says Dr Tombs, the Howard Paterson Chair of Theology and Public Issues, University of Otago.

“We are very lucky to have Mercy in this role. Mercy is the first Samoan woman with a PhD in theology, and the first to be appointed to a teaching position in a Samoan theological college. She has a very longstanding engagement with the issues in both Samoa and the wider region, and is committed to change in the churches and throughout society. She is able to raise challenging issues in a constructive and appropriate way, and engage with voices which are often not heard as much as they should be. The support which the college give her is also invaluable.”

The project investigates what can be done among the larger denominations of the church, namely the Congregational, Methodist and Catholic, as well as smaller denominations like the Anglicans and Seventh Day Adventist churches.

“The Anglicans have made a significant commitment on this issue. Even though they are a tiny presence in Samoa they are doing quite a lot. Likewise, the Seventh Day Adventists have identified the prevention of violence as an important concern. We want to learn more about what the larger churches are doing and how they might do more.

“In other parts of the world where the church has a strong presence, contextual bible studies have been used to raise the issue of violence against women. The indications are that the bible studies can be a really important bridge, to support churches into a more active role. We’re exploring the image of rolling out a fine mat of scripture; the idea behind this is that the bible is a mat which invites people to come together into a new conversation on this issue.

There is a sense of optimism that transformational change can be brought about, but it is going to take time.

“We are optimistic that the churches are well-placed to make a positive contribution, however, it would be extremely naive to think this is straightforward or that this project can simply solve the problem. There is no magic wand solution to this. The evidence suggests that progress will depend on addressing deeper issues of equality, power and control. The churches can show leadership on this but it will require a strong commitment for this to translate into actions and meaningful change.

One of the biggest obstacles to be addressed is the traditional attitudes of men in power in the churches.

“The starting point for any project on violence against women should be an analysis of power and control. Churches should ask how they might be supporting and sustaining forms of power and control which encourage abuse. Often churches do not intend to do this but it is an unintended consequence of other beliefs and actions. Examining how this works involves hard questions and honest conversations. That is why the biblical resources are central to the project. The project resources challenge the ways that in the past some biblical passages have been used against women. They affirm that both men and women are created in the image of God, and are equal in dignity and standing as children of God. Violence between men and women has no place in God’s will for the world, and can never be excused or justified as God’s wishes.”

The third in a series of conferences in the project will be at the University of Auckland next month.

Prof David Tombs. David is Howard Paterson Chair of Theology and Public Issues, at the University of Otago.