Thursdays in Black grew out of women’s movements of resilience and resistance to injustice, abuse and violence. In the Pacific region, which has some of the highest recorded rates of violence against women, churches are leading conversations to change attitudes and actions.
Domestic violence is prevalent throughout Fiji. According to UN Women’s Global Database on Violence against Women, almost 2 out of 3 women aged 18-64 in Fiji have experienced physical or sexual violence from their intimate partner – almost twice the global average.
Mereani Elizabeth, project officer for the Methodist Women’s Fellowship in Fiji, said that, at the end of every month, the county’s prosecution office release figures on the number of cases of violence against women, “and the numbers are just increasing.” She shares statistics from the Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre which show that 80% of women have witnessed some form of violence in the home; 66% of women have been physically abused by partners and nearly half repeatedly abused.
In Fiji, 65% of the population identifies as Christian, with 53% of Christians identifying as Methodist. As Elizabeth noted, this puts the Methodist Church in Fiji in a unique position to encourage cultural shifts in attitude, shifts that will decrease and prevent violence against women.
Gender equality theology
Starting almost two years ago, the church introduced a gender equality theology developed through the Uniting Church in Australia as part of a Partnering Women for Change programme launched in 2015. The programme is now being implemented in different countries in the Pacific region.
“Introducing gender equality theology is all about going out into church communities and reinterpreting Bible scriptures and giving them deeper meaning,” said Elizabeth. Working with gender equality institutional transformation ministers, she has been engaged in outreach and workshops, bringing church leaders, men, women and youth together to discuss what are sometimes considered taboo subjects.
“We try and engage with people on subjects that they are not comfortable talking about. For men, this can be about child protection and care, rape, abuse that is going on with women in Fiji and how men are not only protectors but abusers,” said Elizabeth. "I try to make them see that women must not be beaten up—never.”
Now more than a year into the initiative, Elizabeth said the mindset of congregations is changing. The church is finally able to talk about violence in the open.
“These church leaders are starting to preach it from the pulpit, that this is happening, that men need to learn from a very young age that it is not acceptable to hit a woman, whether it is your sister, wife, your grandmother,” she said.
Previously, churches all-too-often encouraged women, either overtly or tacitly, to stay in a marriage, be strong—and be quiet. “Those are wrong motives to be telling women,” said Elizabeth, citing a recent news report about a 15-year-old girl who eloped with a man. She had two children with him, then was murdered by him. “Young girls also need to be educated to make wise decisions.”
She emphasizes that it is okay to talk to your children. "The reality is it is happening, and we have to talk to the young about it,” she said. “It brings the family together to have these conversations.”
She believes people really do want to change. “So far, these workshops have been seen as a as a ‘safe space’ for the church to discuss other marginalised and oppressed groups and normally taboo subjects,” said Elizabeth. “This has meant that other marginalised groups feel they can have their voices heard – due to both being an internal church program and that the discussions hold more weight being based on theology and the Bible, and led by church ministers.”
Thursdays in Black adds impact
Elizabeth also advocates for Thursdays in Black and the “16 days Against Gender-based Violence” campaign because she feels that combining local solutions with international solidarity helps create change.
“In our first workshop I introduced Thursdays in Black – how it came to light and why it is important,” she said. “That it is not only us but also other Christians standing up.”
She also talks about how the Methodist Church in Fiji is part of the World Council of Churches. “Then they go, ‘Wow - we as Fijians, we as Christians, we started this and we need to keep this up.’ ”
Elizabeth remains encouraged by all the individual stories she hears of change. “One woman shared that she was once questioned, ‘Why are you wearing black?’ As black is normally worn for mourning, the women in the community noticed she was wearing black every Thursday. Finally, they decided to ask her why, and she was proud to be asked and to be able to talk about it.”
It shows, said Elizabeth, that change “only has to start with someone that you know, that you share with.”