By ALICIA WALLACE
As the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence continues, most people working in the fields of gender and violence prevention are attending events ranging from special assemblies at high schools to conferences. At these events, we see and engage, for the most part, the same people. We sit through presentations on the same material, listen to the same comments and have the same sidebars with the people we talk to every time we meet in these spaces.
There are many things we can do to make these meetings more beneficial to participants and impactful for the communities they serve. One often ignored and overlooked area we need to strengthen is multi-sector partnerships. Beyond holding events during traditional work hours on weekdays and bringing the same participants together, we forget to invite organisations and individuals working in different fields, but with direct access to the communities we need to reach.
One of the most dangerously powerful entities in The Bahamas is the church. It has tremendous influence on its congregants and, by extension, elected and appointed representatives of the people who sit in Parliament and the Senate. The Christian church has shown itself to have the power to make its vote the vote of the people through its interpretation of biblical text, access to resources and at least weekly opportunities to push its agenda.
Many Bahamian people are more inclined to listen to a religious leader than a politician, academic, or advocate. Church masses and meetings are seen as mandatory while conference and information sessions tend to be seen as distractions, poor uses of time, or generally superfluous.
When we take all of this into consideration, it becomes clear we need to partner with the church to reach the people. This doesn’t mean promoting conferences in the bulletin or newsletter, or asking to use church halls to hold meetings. It means having ongoing conversations with leadership about current events, draft legislation, programme development and community-building.
This is not to be confused with the usual quest for the church’s approval. It is a completely separate process which would allow us to properly communicate with the church about national issues and its role in addressing them and engaging its congregation in the conversation and the collective action required to make positive change.
Many politicians, civil society leaders and activists would agree The Bahamas Christian Council tends to make a nuisance of itself. It has historically been selective in the issues it speaks to and frequently, as in its most recent statement, suggests prayer is a reasonable and impactful action on its own.
The Bahamas Christian Council announced it will focus on men as they are in need of immediate attention. While he mentioned the plan to hold panel discussions and meetings, Bishop Fernander spoke about using teaching, preaching and prayer to reach young men.
While the church, as Bishop Fernander said, “can’t be anything else than what the church is,” it is important we recognise its role in developing and influencing people. It is easy to criticise the church and its methods, but it is not going anywhere, and Bahamian people continue to fund it and look to it for direction.
How can we make better use of the platform and space the church holds in Bahamian society? Are we inviting religious leaders to panel discussions, conferences and reporting sessions? While there will always be those who teach and preach on what they do not fully understand, it is important we make it possible for them to gain access to information, challenge it in forums where there can be immediate response and debate and take material for colleagues and congregants.
The Pan American Development Foundation in partnership with the US Embassy has delivered Resistant and Prevention Programme training to police officers, civil servants and members of civil society for the past few years.
While the programme focuses on crime prevention and community policing, opening it to more than just police officers is critical to its success. It was through this programme that I gained appreciation for Urban Renewal and I can now challenge people who say it is useless. My participation in the course revealed harsh truths about the police force, the state of families and communities around us and the resources available to assist those in need.
I do not imagine I would have gained the same insight from speeches, essays, or one-off events. I still have strong opinions about law enforcement, from the system to the personnel, but the course was integral to deepening my understanding of our state and building relationships for collaboration. Opening a police-focused course to others allowed for honest yet difficult conversations and helped participants to see the value in the work we are all doing.
Yesterday, the Pan American Development Foundation held a conference on its Women’s Initiative for Non-Violence and Development (WIND) programme and, again, there were many police officers present.
In addition, there were representatives from various government departments including Education and members of civil society organisations. For many of us, the information presented was not new, but the value was in the discussion toward the end of the day.
We were able to hear about the work being done and some of the barriers to that work, or to expanding it. Interestingly, every time a participant raised an issue or made mention of a roadblock to developing, funding, or expanding a program, someone volunteered helpful information or offered their own resources or influence to give the person access. This is the power of working across sectors.
While we are not likely to agree on every issue, there are many areas of consensus. For example, there are many responses to domestic violence. There are thousands of stories of women being turned away from police stations because they had been there before and officers were tired of helping them. There are just as many stories of religious leaders encouraging women to stay with abusive husbands because the “family” is paramount.
Meanwhile, civil society organisations work to assist survivors, providing them with counseling and economic support, prioritizing the life of the women and their children. There is clearly no consensus there, but all entities can agree that violence — based on the texts, whether religious or legal, they use as guides — is wrong. Let’s start there. Make it a part of the message in sermons and teachings. Make it a part of summer camps run by the RBPF. Make it a part of the conversation when training volunteers. Find ways to work together on programming that can reach all of the communities these organisations touch. Include each other in the work being done.
We won’t make change by continuing to talk to ourselves. If we continue to only see the same faces every time we meet, we’re doing it wrong. Our challenge — perhaps the greatest and most pressing — is to expand our reach, step out of our comfort zones and engage the people we perceive to be our opponents. Even they have something to offer, if only their audience and the influence they maintain over it.