Solomon Islands’ women seeking shelter from domestic violence

Solomon Islands’ women seeking shelter from domestic violence
Pictured: Cecilia looks out of the Christian Care Centre, the only women's refuge in the Solomon Islands. 

NICOLE PRYOR, MEDIA ADVISOR NEW ZEALAND


Cecilia was just a school girl when a knife was held to her throat and she said ‘yes’ to marrying her husband. The promise of violence ruled their relationship ever after.  


“I have tried to leave twice before. I was so scared. He has stoned me, and smashed my head with a hammer,” she said. 
 
“This time, he told my children ‘I am going to kill your mum and chop her up’. He sat down to file his knife, and my children ran away into the bush.” 
 
After escaping to find her children, running from house to house trying to track them down, they ended up at the gates of the only safe haven her city Honiara had to offer her, the Christian Care Centre.   
 
From behind these walls, she knew he was looking for her – he had been there before, pleading with the sisters who care for her, and making promises she would return to a safe home. 
 
“He’s looking but he won’t get in. I will stay here until he is arrested – only then will I go back home,” she said. “I am worried about life. I am an early childhood education teacher. I love my job, I miss my students. I need money to survive.” 
 
Cecilia was five days into her third stay at the Christian Care Centre, surrounded by new and familiar faces. Familiar were the faces of Sister Phyllis, the coordinator of the Christian Care Centre, and the sisters who care for the women.  
 
Pictured: Sister Phyllis, the coordinator of the Christian Care Centre, stands at the tall iron gates of the centre. 

New were the faces of the many abused women, young girls and their children of the Solomon Islands who had nowhere else to turn. One of them was a six-year-old girl who had been beaten and raped by her stepfather and two other men.  
 
They are the faces representing the hundreds of women who arrive there each year to escape brutal domestic violence and sexual abuse.  
 
Gender-based violence is a serious problem in the Solomon Islands, and the use of severe physical punishment to discipline women is frequent.  
 
Two out of three women say they have experienced physical violence from an intimate partner. Almost forty per cent of Solomon Islands’ women say their first sexual encounter was forced. 
 
Deeply held local beliefs and attitudes reinforce and normalise the violence, and the support services available are few and far between.  
 
Even the Christian Care Centre is cast out to the edge of the city, hidden in the bush, reached after a hostile drive over dirt roads, a long bus ride, or desperate walk. 
 
Tall iron gates surround the compound, where women are greeted by the Anglican sisters dressed in their sky blue dresses and jandals. But the visitors are not always welcome. The women’s abusers often turn up, sometimes drunk or high, to take their partners home. 
 
It is why Sister Annie, who has worked at the Christian Care Centre for three years, describes herself as part counsellor, part police officer, part security guard.  
 
“Here, every day, 24 hours, sometimes we rest less because the police come at night with women who need help. Sometimes husbands come,” she said. 
 
Sister Annie said this was part of making women who have been through rape and violence feel safe. “Every day we are here with the clients, we do cooking, stories with them. Accompany them to the police station, or to their family,” she said. 
 
“Children who are raped or abused, sometimes they don’t get rest. Some are five, ten, eight years old. Sometimes they play to stop thinking about their abuse.” 
 
She said the sisters stood by their clients through their court cases, dealings with the police, and reconciliations with their families.  
 
“Some young women, they do things and their family doesn’t want them. So the parents let them live with the Christian Care Centre for a month.” 
 
The Christian Care Centre is at capacity, and World Vision has partly funded a new wing, called the Rainbow Wing, so girls can sleep in a different building to older women.  
  
To address the root of the problem of gender inequality, World Vision’s Channels of Hope programme uses the Bible to change attitudes and behaviours.  
 
Gwen works in a Channels of Hope Action Team, in the squatter settlement of Sun Valley. She said the main problem was lack of education about gender based violence. 
 
“I am the chair lady, helping the women, the youth, the school drop outs, and the pregnant teenagers in my community,” she said. 
 
“I tell them gender based violence is one of the worst things in our community, and the main problem is the lack of education for the man. The women are very good. This is for the men.” 
 
She said it was the second year the programme had been running, and she had noticed changes in the community. 
 
“The women stay home, look after the children, go to the garden, get food. Women stay in their cell and do their things at home - then the men come back home and give them a hard time,” she said. 
 
“They always think they’re the boss, and they’re the one, the head of the house. The women don’t have a word to reply. They don’t have the strength either.” 
 
She said women were gaining a voice to speak up for themselves, and her community was fostering a new generation of young men who have more respect for women. 
 
As communities like Gwen’s in Sun Valley slowly build knowledge to dismantle attitudes towards women that result in destructive, abusive relationships, women like Cecilia wait for freedom to rebuild their lives. 

 
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