Manila, Philippines - (23 October 2009) "It's very real. It's very now."
This was how Ofa Guttenbeil Likiliki described the persistent violations against women's human rights in her country, Tonga. In September 2009, Tongan Prime Minister Dr. Feleti Sevele announced his cabinet's decision not to ratify the Convention of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).
Speaking before the United Nations General Assembly, he said: "The Legislative Assembly believed that to ratify CEDAW would cut across our cultural and social heritage that makes up the Tongan way of life. It would require the creation of fundamental changes for every Tongan citizen to a way of life and social organisation that has sustained Tonga to date." Tonga joins Iran, Sudan, Somalia, Nauru and Palau which are few remaining countries that have not ratified what is known as women's bill of rights.
The executive director for the Tongan National Centre for Women and Children and a budding filmmaker, Guttenbeil Likiliki is among the more vocal opponents of this political move. "We cannot afford to romanticise culture. We need to move away from the perfect woman. Brothers can no longer look after their sisters. We are treading on a dangerous territory," she asserted.
Just recently Tonga saw six homicide cases, which are significant for a country with only 100,000 population. Four of these resulted from domestic violence.
Tonga has yet to recognise domestic violence and marital rape as forms of violence against women. Rape continuous to be defined based on penile penetration. Women are also not eligible to own assets such as land and access other resources. "Women cannot own land. When they become widows, they must remain faithful to their dead husbands otherwise they would be eased out of their lands," she cited.
Despite her consistent advocacy on women's rights, Guttenbeil Likiliki has been widely criticised in the small Catholic country. "Letters have been written against me. It has really been a difficult time in the last two months to come out in public, she said. Fiji Women's Crisis Centre's Shamina Ali who has been supportive of Guttenbeil Likiliki has likewise received a backlash.
Guttenbeil Likiliki, who continues to subscribe to the Catholic faith admitted her discomfort even in some women's spaces. According to her one of the country's leading women's organisations that is associated with the Catholic church included in its liturgical rites statements against CEDAW, that "it would destroy Tonga, that CEDAW takes men's rights away."
As she was about to conclude her speech at the plenary session, she broke down, "I feel so uncomfortable but I know I am doing the right thing."
Guttenbeil Likiliki was part of the plenary session "Feminisms through Generations" at the Asia Pacific NGO Forum on Beijing+15. The Forum that runs from 22 to 24 October 2009 is organised by the Asia Pacific Women's Watch.
Island Business (28 September 2009). "Tonga PM defends non-ratification of CEDAW at UN." URL: http://www.islandsbusiness.com/news/index_dynamic/containerNameToReplace=MiddleMiddle/focusModuleID=130/focusContentID=16838/tableName=mediaRelease/overideSkinName=newsArticle-full.tpl
Matangi Tonga Online (18 September 2009). "Tongan parliament decides not to ratify CEDAW." URL: http://www.matangitonga.to/article/20090918_1047_cedaw.shtml
Radio New Zealand International (18 September 2009). "Tongan women disgusted with government for snubbing CEDAW." URL: http://www.rnzi.com/pages/news.php?op=read&id=49190