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Soap operas against gender violence

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30 November 2011 10:18

Lucy Battaglene is writing her honours thesis on Pacific Studies at the ANU and Danielle Romanes is an intern with the Lowy Institute's Myer Foundation Melanesia Program.

Stopping gender-based violence (GBV) should be a priority for economists and development practitioners. That's the idea a World Bank economist tabled at a recent Lowy Institute roundtable. The idea is simple: reconceptualise GBV within an economic framework, and political leaders will take interest.

The economic costs of gender violence are far from common knowledge. In the Pacific Islands especially, leaders appear either ignorant or indifferent to the costs of GBV – with appalling consequences. A 2008 AusAID report found 43.2%, 67% and 66% of women in East Timor, PNG and Fiji respectively had experienced some kind of physical or sexual violence towards them during their lifetimes.

Beyond the obvious human rights violations (the scope and horror of which are highlighted in this article by Virginia Hausegger), GBV is costing the Pacific. Violent abuse results in lower productivity, loss of earnings and tax revenue, increased costs for the public health and justice systems, increased mortality rates and an inter-generational transmission of the same behaviour. 

GBV in the Pacific is a complex phenomenon and the contributing factors are numerous. Poverty and economic dependence aggravate GBV, but cultural factors such as entrenched patriarchy, bride price, the clash of modernity with kastom lifestyles models, changing gender roles in urban areas and accepted norms of violence serve to perpetuate and legitimise GBV at every level of society.

One solution to GBV is the political empowerment of women via parliamentary quotas that mandate a given level of female representation. With the Pacific's dire record on gender-equitable government, initiatives like these are critical.

However, change shouldn't be exclusively top down. Anti-GBV advocates need to capture the minds of their communities, as well as their politicians. A range of innovative tools to engender cultural mind-shifts are already in play in the Pacific, and many of them are locally driven.

The PNG Facebook group Papua New Guineans Against Domestic Violence has 5674 members to date — about 8.5% of PNG's Facebook constituency. Social media platforms like these are a useful way for men and women to raise concerns and rally support for victims of GBV. They are also platforms from which those responsible or complacent can be held accountable.

On a regional level, campaigns such as the Break the Silence End the Violence project in New Zealand and Tonga use male role models (in this case, professional rugby players) to spread the anti-GBV message. With the rapid proliferation of mobile communications technology in the Pacific, campaigns like this have the potential to reach an ever-wider audience.

In South Africa, the UK's aid agency DfID claims an impressive impact for its edu-tainment soap opera Soul City, now in its 11th season. Highly watchable, the show promotes social messages on gender equality and the important role that men have to play in breaking the cycle of domestic abuse.

Methods like these are promising. Innovative use of social tools and technological advances enable campaigns against GBV to become more broad-ranging, engaging and dynamic. However, as one participant in the recent roundtable noted, development economics can be disappointingly faddish and there's no guarantee that donor interest in gender equality will be sustained. Pacific Islanders need to be the drivers of their own gender-equitable future, and this means seizing the momentum to promote real change.

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