By Sesilia Loloa-Wolff
I have been following the controversy of the Ratification of CEDAW and am surprised with the reaction, especially from those who don’t support it now because they did support it then.
I hope it might be useful to remind everyone of where this all started from, in the hope that knowing where we came from would get us to where we are going to. To do so, I would like to share the beginning of the Centre for Women and Children. My intention is not to take away the credit from those who are currently doing the work, but to remind everyone of why the Centre was established in the first place.
The first ever Conference for the Catholic Women’s League of Tonga was held in 1995, and the theme was “The Woman of the Year 2000”. I was privileged to be the President-Elect.
Dr Sr Keiti Anne Kanongata’a was the Keynote Speaker. She challenged us to look at ourselves and work out where we were at in 1995, and where wanted to be at the Year 2000. She challenged us to stand on our own two feet and confront the issues that were holding us back. The Conference accepted her challenge, identifying these key priorities to work towards:
- Establish the Centre for Women and Children, to promote human dignity and the rights of women, in the defence of social, relational and restorative justice.
- Education and awareness raising of the needs and problems of those who are threatened and endangered by family violence, abusive behaviour, immoral issues, family disunity, inadequate education, inadequate family income and threats to family health.
These two priorities precisely include the issues which CEDAW addresses! And that’s where it all began. As the President elect, it was my job to commence the work to implement the key issues identified by members of the Catholic Women’s League adopted at the Conference.
We had the blessing and support of the Late, His Lordship the Bishop Dr Soane Lilo Foliaki, and consulted with him weekly to ensure that we were doing everything under the umbrella of the Catholic Church accordingly and appropriately. We were specifically conscious of the Principles of the Social Teachings of the Church, and wanted to be sure that our work at the Centre did not violate any of these principles, such as the Principles of:
- Respect for Human Dignity
- Respect for Human Life
- Preferential Option for the Poor and the Vulnerable
- Human Equality
- Common Good
Isn’t it interesting how these Principles mirror some of the important parts of CEDAW?
We were also greatly supported by His Eminence the Cardinal Soane Patita Paini Mafi, who was the Parish priest at the Basilica of St Anthony of Padua, where the first office of the Catholic Women’s League was established.
Some of the highlights from those early years included:
Sr Malia Simione, Betty Blake, Susana ‘Uhatafe and I volunteered and started the work and the setting up of the Centre
- The funding of our first project, on Legal Literacy for Women, by RRRT in Fiji. Betty Blake was selected by the Catholic Women’s League as the Legal Literacy Co-ordinator and was carrying out the work in Tonga under the umbrella of the CWL
- The first Legal Literacy Project (LLP) Training within the CWL in 1997. At the opening, the late Bishop Dr Soane Lilo Foliaki addressed three important issues which he thought obstructed one’s Catholic faith and that were linked to the “Faith and Vision” Mission of the Catholic Women’s League;
- Our inability to action faith, for it is in the process of putting faith into action that we grow in understanding;
- Our ignorance of our own human dignity as creations in God image and co-heirs to His Kingdom;
- Our separation from God, which makes us lose faith to carry out His Will.
In his closing remarks, Bishop stressed the importance of the LLP and the need to include the men in the project to deepen their understandings.
- The first Workshop in Vava’u, the Magistrate who opened the Workshop told the participants that “….a wife need chastising, then the husband is granted permission to slap her around a bit” - (‘oku ngofua pe ki hono mali ke ne ki’i taa’i ke‘ako’i…).
- The support given by HRH Princess Mele Siuilikutapu Kalaniuvalu Fotofili. In her address at the opening the workshop held in Lapaha for the Eastern District, she said that if she were living in Tonga at the time, she would attend all of the workshops. She likened the educational workshop to the pleasure of having a light switched on after prolonged imprisonment in the dark, and quoted from her Grandfather, King George Tupou 1, the founder of Tonga’s Constitution: ”E ‘ahua hoku kakai ko e masiva ‘ilo” - “My people will be destroyed for lack of knowledge”.
- Recognition of the good work being done when the Legal Literacy Project was awarded “The Human Rights Award of the Year” in 1999.
- The opening of the Centre for Women and Children in October 2000 by Her Majesty Queen Nanasi Pau’u Tuku’aho (HRH Princess at the time) as she was the Patroness of the Centre. At the opening ceremony, she too issued a challenge to the people of Tonga: “Oua teke tata’o he lalo fala kata tu’u hake ‘o lea ‘oku ‘I ai ‘eta palopalema” - (do not hide your problem under the mat but stand up and admit it).
As you can see, step-by-step, the work of the Catholic Women’s League and its Centre for Women and Children was building a strong foundation for human growth and dignity and rights. This was not just some feministic issues of women folks but was well thought out, with the proper processes in place in support of women in the family holistically. This was not the fight of an individual, but the voice of all the Catholic women in Tonga. I am sure we did represent women in the Tongan population at the time. Many of us knew women, some in our own families, who had suffered from domestic violence or abuse of some sort.
There is more to the story, such as the evolution of the Centre into a National Centre for Women and Children. But throughout it all, the focus remained on women –and particularly vulnerable women at risk – and their human rights within civil, cultural, economic and social life. This is a natural continuation of the organisational goals of the Catholic Women’s League:
- To create more equal, mutually respectful partnerships (between men and women; adults and youth and children; clergy and laity), fostering understanding to bring about positive changes in the family, the church and society.
- To create better understanding awareness of the constraints and challenges facing women within the patriarchal and hierarchical social, cultural and church structures;
- To increase advocacy for the full participation of women in the family, the church and society.”
Again, these are the areas focused on in CEDAW! These are the goals we were working towards all along!
With such a long history of involvement in the area of women’s rights (areas that are similar to that of CEDAW) and with such broad support from the Church, the Catholic Women’s League, and a number of Tonga leaders, I am surprised at the resistance that has arisen.
I know that there are some parts of CEDAW which might be open to multiple interpretations. I know that some in Tonga choose to parts of Articles 15 and 16 as supporting abortion, or conflicting with Tonga’s laws about land ownership and inheritance. It is not for me to say how people should or shouldn’t interpret these words. But it is for me to say: Read it yourself, and make up your own mind – don’t let someone else make your decisions for you.
And when reading it, Article by Article, Clause by Clause, take note of which parts give you concern. I think you will find that only a small part of the 30 Articles and numerous clauses might be possibly controversial. And with these, it is entirely allowed to enter “reservations” about these, and to ratify all of the Convention except these.
So, why not? If that it what we have all been working towards, and if 70-80-90% can be ratified without objection, then why not?
And that is my challenge to you!