We are marching in the rain. We are marching in the rain because this is when we have scheduled our march. We have scheduled our march for today, even though it is the time of year when it rains like Noah most days, because today is White Ribbon Day and we are marching in solidarity to end violence against women with the rest of the world. Here in Buala, the capital village of Isabel Province, no one can see us marching because they are all inside hiding from the rain. There are puddles, deep and grimy with tan-hued silt. We march through them: the Provincial Police Commander and his officers; the Deputy Premier and Minister for Community Affairs and her small team; the Mothers’ Union representatives with their colourful uniforms; the giggling school students excited about skipping classes; and me, squelching ahead with the new waterproof camera that I had sent over from Australia after my original camera died the last time we marched in the rain. Soon there is lightning, but still we march. I decide that I would very much like to hide from it but seeing as no one else seems bothered I continue to march, scurrying into the middle of a cluster of taller people. On we march.
I went to the Solomon Islands for many reasons. My relationship was in the throes of a Wagner-length swan song, I was sick of Melbourne’s cold, and the Australian Volunteers job description included a line about buying fresh fish off the wharf each morning. I was a vegetarian at the time, so this was not so much something I necessarily wanted to do, but something I could see myself doing in the better, happier version of my life that often played in my head like a demented soap opera in which every character was me and each episode revolved around me. It had a theme song and in it I was content. The volunteer position involved supporting the development of a network of community radio stations, and though I’d spent the last couple of years working in the women’s sector, I figured my media degree would serve me well in whatever it was I imagined I would spend my days doing (that is, buying fresh fish off the wharf and enjoying year-round shorts weather while I helped edit playlists and make up the news, Rupert-style). I saw myself as a present-day Robinson Crusoe, a Melanesian Gauguin or the dodgy plantation owner in South Pacific – all references I made without having actually read or seen any of these things and before I had a proper grasp of the legacy of colonialism in the South Pacific.
My placement was in Isabel Province, a twenty-four-hour ship ride from the capital Honiara, which has a population of around 30,000. At the time I was there the network of eight solar-powered community radio stations was the only means of communication around the island, which had no television, newspapers or decent mobile phone coverage beyond its administrative centre in Buala. It is the longest island in the Solomon Islands archipelago and travel is done either on foot or by outboard motorboat along the coast. Distance, though short by Australian standards, means relative isolation as the province’s mountains and rivers forge a real-life snakes and ladders game that separates people from medical facilities, the police post and each other.
The story of those community radio stations is a story for another time: a time when we have all had a nice stiff glass of scotch and I can hold off the perpetual migraine that arises every time I recall the months of fruitless work my colleagues and I put in trying to get someone to fund the damn things. It is the story of why good development projects so often fall in a heap and if I begin it I may very well start screaming and stop only when my brain explodes by way of my temples. This is instead the story of what happens when you rewrite your job description by asking your colleagues what they think is the most pressing issue to work on and then let them guide you through it. Which, in a nutshell, is the story of community development.
The Solomon Islands are infamous for having some of the highest rates of family violence in the Pacific and, indeed, the world. A 2009 countrywide survey found that nearly two in three women had experienced physical or sexual violence, or both, from an intimate partner. Without doubt this is a truly horrific and despicable statistic. However, to put it into context, the rate in Australia is one in three women and we have a whole, funded sector that has been working on this issue for more than four decades. It isn’t that any one culture is more violent than an other: the culture of gendered violence exists in all countries and across all classes, religions and ethnicities. But in a country like the Solomons – still recovering from the ethnic tensions that bankrupted and divided the country at the turn of the millennium – a lack of funding, resources, infrastructure and services make it very difficult to tackle a problem like this. Particularly when intervention requires funding for support services and prevention requires changing the ingrained attitudes, beliefs and behaviours that support violence happening in the first place. I mean, it’s the patriarchy, right? You’re gonna need a much bigger boat to fight the patriarchy…
To understand the difference between intervention and prevention let’s imagine a river. It is very much like the Saba River that runs through Buala in which I once thought I saw a crocodile then promptly fell in, just to make sure. Imagine all these people keep falling into the river (me, for instance), then float along screaming hysterically until they are eaten by a crocodile. Intervention is the big stick you use to haul them out just before they’re munched, leaving them traumatised and vulnerable on the shore while you turn to fish out the next shrieking waterlogged person. Prevention is the bridge you build that has sturdy railings to stop them from falling in to begin with. To eliminate violence against women, you need to work at both these ends.
In late 2010 my Isabel colleagues and I set up the Isabel United to Stop Family Violence Team, the first integrated rural family violence prevention and intervention strategy in the Solomon Islands. It brought together workers from the hospital, the government’s women and youth ministries, the police, the church, the Mothers’ Union and the chiefs – united by the same message. The team had additional support from the Buala-based Participating Police Force representative, part of the international Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) that arrived in the country to restore peace and order following the tensions. The entire team operated in addition to their normal responsibilities, with no extra money or resources, travelling far from their families in order to reach villages across the entire island. At one point, during cyclone season, the boat had to wait out a storm docked in a small inlet for twenty-four hours, during which people wrote their reports while taking it in turns to throw up over board. Another workshop, at the farthest region of the province, had to wait nearly twelve months to take place because the team was busy scraping together funding from wherever they could find it.
We worked in two phases. The first raised awareness of the issue across the island, building the capacity of community leaders in understanding the law, impacts and support options, as well as strengthening networks between the villages and Buala-based services. The second phase worked on building the capacity of the village chiefs to partner their local justice systems with the formal justice system operating through the police and circuit court. We explored the attitudes and beliefs that supported violence: rigid gender expectations, social norms that allow violence, and persistent gender inequality. We celebrated the strengths of Solomon and Isabel culture and used them to show how far removed gendered violence lay from these treasured values and beliefs. I sat back as my colleagues sifted through the best-practice models from Australia and adapted the bits they thought would work in their culture and context. And this, really, is at the heart of some of the best community development work: white people shutting up and respecting that we are not the experts on everything, including but not limited to other people’s cultures. Did we make a difference? When I left in 2012 the figures from the police were promising. In 2009, prior to the team forming, there were only ten family violence reports across the whole island. In 2010, it was forty and in 2011 it reached ninety-eight. Police reports, however, are only one side of the story, particularly in a province where it may take up to three days of walking to reach the police station. Feedback from the villages was that people had started to talk about family violence. To name it. To condemn it in church sermons and punish it in village courts. To question the hypocrisy when those in important positions were violent in their homes. Like so much prevention work, it’s about the conversations that people have and the standards these set for how we would like our societies to be: when we say violence isn’t acceptable and hold perpetrators accountable. Hem no part lo culture blong mifala; hem no part lo kastom blong mifala: It’s not part of our culture and it’s not part of our customs.
I think a lot about family violence. It is my day job and I completed a Masters dissertation on it. This is why I write novels that are not about family violence and instead have characters whose mission is to make you laugh, reflect and appreciate a good vomit and/or dad joke. I tried to make this piece funny but there exists a vibrant line that you cannot cross for such a pernicious global issue, so sorry for the capped humour. When you see on a daily basis the many ways in which violence against women diminishes us all, it is hard to be anything but solemn and outraged. Today, when I think about violence prevention in my current job with communities in Melbourne’s outer north, much of my learning comes from my time in the Solomon Islands and the grassroots work my colleagues began. The Isabel family violence team is still going, eternally hampered by lack of funding but continuing to operate through the sheer willpower, passion and determination of its team members. When I returned in 2014 to interview my former colleagues as part of my Masters research, I asked them what motivated them to continue despite so many obstacles. They looked at me kindly, as if I had been rendered simple by my time back in Australia, and answered plainly: it was their community that was suffering and it was their responsibility – all of our responsibility – to do something.
When I find myself overwhelmed by the magnitude of this issue and the massive social change required to eradicate it, I look to my time in the Solomons to reinspire me. Okay, fine, first I spend part of the evening eating hot chips in the bath while crying like Halle Berry when she won the Oscar, but after I’ve rinsed the crumbs from my décolletage and dried off, I grab that glass of therapy scotch and send myself back to the Solomons. Most of the time I think of White Ribbon Day 2011, when we were marching in the rain, chanting alongside the ominous thunder, mud splashing about our bare legs and waving our banners stridently at the horizon. Marching without an audience on a remote island in the middle of the Pacific that most people don’t even know exists. Marching for ourselves and for the world we’d like to see.