On the outskirts of Honiara, quite a drive off the main road, through abandoned cacao plantations and out by the ocean sits the Christian Care Centre; the Solomon Islands’ only refuge for women and children who have experienced violence.
It’s a small facility, run on the smell of an ocean-soaked rag by the formidable Sister Doreen, and staffed by volunteers. It offers women and children who are survivors of physical and sexual violence a place and space to be. The Christian Care Centre works closely with the Family Support Centre and the police to provide legal support; that is, when there is a law to support them. There are no specific domestic violence laws in the Solomons, and gaping holes in other laws which could be used to help protect against violence.
In a country where 64% of women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence,* the Christian Care Centre provides an essential service and is always full to capacity. Sister Doreen shared her concern about the inevitability of having to ‘move people on’, only to find them returning a few months later – often following worse injuries.
I spent a day at the Christian Care Centre during a recent visit to Honiara. Sister Doreen and Annie – the Chair of the Centre, and a regular volunteer – showed us around the complex, the main building of which was opened by Dame Silvia Cartwright in 2004.
The grounds were welcoming, the people generous, and I was surprised by the amount of time we spent laughing (though I get the feeling Sister Doreen, Annie and everyone else at the centre laugh a lot). They laughed at me not knowing that pineapples grew on bushes; we laughed as they reenacted Mr Bean sketches – the favourite DVD to play during the hour a day the generator is on; we laughed at the people with good intentions who had sent them the washing machine and dryer that were still in their packaging in a corner of the ‘classroom’ (clearly they’d not understood the limitations of generator power and a lack of running water).
There are a lot of children at the centre. Some of them are there with their mothers; others are there independently, as survivors of violence and sexual abuse. The majority of the time the classroom lacks a teacher. There’s currently a high school teacher who is at the Centre for the second time – she’s just had the stitches taken out of her forehead where her husband hit her so hard it split the skin – and she has been helping in the classroom occasionally.
As the grown-ups talk I’m laughing again, playing air guitar with a boy across the garden who’s rocking out on the casing for a puzzle which has lost its pieces. Soon we’re sitting on the floor and I’m reading a dull book about a worm that eventually figures out the scarf he’s carrying around belongs to him. Before long all the children, and some of the adults, are listening. They are gripped. Another book is brought for me to read, a tatty ‘Life of Winston Churchill’. Followed by ‘Tales of New Zealanders in WWII’, the Jurassic Park movie book, and finally a story about an English woman who went to Africa in the olden days and met cannibals. That’s the whole library.
Later, after the hilarity and the reading, once they’d sussed me out a bit, I hear story after story of violence, rape, and abuses of power.
The only woman at the Centre who hasn’t experienced violence is Sister Doreen. When asked whether any security arrangements are needed for the centre, or if she’s ever been threatened, she cackles ‘Ha! I’m a nun! Nobody would dare.’
I won’t recount the personal stories, or the complex system of compensation (one of the women at the centre was forced to pay compensation for the shame she brought upon her brother-in-law when she refused to have sex with him). Ahead of the 2011 Pacific Island Forum this week, I wanted to use this post to highlight, and possibly remind leaders of the promise they made at the 2009 Pacific Island Forum in Cairns.
In the Cairns Communiqué Pacific leaders acknowledged the high rates of gender-based violence in the region, and committed to eradicating sexual and gender based violence, ensuring that all individuals have equal protection and access to justice. It was the first time the Pacific Island Forum declared sexual and gender-based violence a risk to human security.
Let’s remind them of the commitment they have made. Let’s remind them of the legal reforms necessary to ensure all individuals have equal protection and access to justice. Let’s remind them to develop legislation that works and ensure it’s implemented.
I have also resolved to get some more books for the Christian Care Centre library. I’m thinking Hairy Maclary would be a good start; it’s hard to be worse than Winston Churchill and cannibals.
Branwen Millar works for Family Planning International
* SPC (2009) Solomon Islands Family Health and Safety Study, SPC, Noumea.