By Alisi Daurewa

SUVA, Fiji (Fiji Times, May, 2009) – In 1995, Fiji ratified CEDAW in Beijing along with other United Nations countries to confirm its commitment to the Convention on the Elimination of All Discrimination Against Women.

How we have fared since then, I do not know although I recall some discussion almost four years ago, on a report our government was to have prepared on its performance against its CEDAW commitment.

The interesting thing about CEDAW and other similar human rights type instruments we commit ourselves to is, we often do not localise it, in order for the people to make sense of it.

For example, in the type of work I do, when I am asked a question on women's rights as some Naitasiri chiefs posed to me at Vunidawa during a grog session after a week-long workshop on capacity building in rural education some years ago, I usually say to them that it is not a new concept.

Our ancestors have been practising it through customary practices some of us still adopt at present but that we just call them different names.

The dilemma we have is, because we are made to feel that it is a palagi and superior concept, most men and some women in retaliation would not ever be able to reconcile the world and the traditional view as one and the same thing.

Please allow me to share three experiences that indicate how women and motherhood are traditionally revered in most Fijian cultures.

In 2004, I was at another workshop in a village on Viti Levu where participants came from three other provinces.

It was on capacity building and human rights. Other partners such as the Fiji Human Rights Commission facilitated with my employer.

Participants included chiefs and also those who held positions that demanded respect at provincial level. Against this backdrop in a meeting house full of people, I marvelled at the courage of a particular village woman who questioned us on rape within a marriage.

She had hardly completed her question when an irate male participant berated us for daring to disrespect them by taking human rights to the people.

Unfortunately for me, the FHRC officer, who is male and single happened to be sitting right beside me so he conveniently gave me the mike, as a sign for me to respond to the participants.

Having not worked for the FHRC, I could only draw on my personal experience in order to contextualise my response. I shared with them the i tatau, a customary practice that my family performed to secure a formal vow of care and protection for me, from my husband's family. Failure to honour the promise usually meant death for the husband and even his tribe in the olden days.

Nowadays, depending on how families value this custom, the husband would continue to be reminded by his parents, as my late father-in-law used to do to his son by pointing to a big tabua hanging on their wall, that they had accepted from my family. My second experience was when I buried one of my favourite cousins earlier this month at Wailevu, Kadavu.

She had taught for more than 20 years, most of which on Kadavu, where she found her husband, a cousin of ours. I can only assume our older relatives must have played a role in arranging a marriage to vakasosokotaka na dra ni veiwekani (strengthen blood ties).

As they brought my cousin back to her house before burial, her husband placed a huge tabua on top of the coffin. In my role as my cousin's maternal relative, I picked the ulu as it is called in the Nacolase dialect and replaced it with another tabua.

The usual practice for us is to place three. The second is placed on the middle of the coffin -- as related to the heart. This tabua is for the mother's mother or maternal grandmother.

The third is placed at the bottom end of the coffin where the feet are and is for the mother's maternal grandmother. In this ceremony though, no words are spoken. The whole act is performed in silence.

My third experience, closer to home -- my mother-in-law was buried last week.

The reguregu, the ceremony of acknowledgement and support by visitation was held at her oldest son's (my husband) house. I got to witness another form of reverence for the role of motherhood.

The interesting bit here is when two vanua or provinces do not observe the same customary practice. My husband's family was adamant that even though their maternal relatives at Yadrana on Lakeba in Lau did not observe the tuva ulu, they would do so as people from Rewa do, to honour their mother and her maternal link.

The ceremony was performed after the burial of my mother-in-law in the privacy of close relatives from Lau, most of whom were women. My husband and his brothers sat at one side of the room facing my mother-in-law's mother's family.

My husband's younger brother, in presenting the tabua thanked his maternal grandmother's family for having produced their qei (Rewan for mother) out of whom they received life and their nurturing.

The words spoken were so profound that there were very little dry eyes in the room.

While my mother-in-law's relatives did not practice the tuva ulu, they have a distinctive culture of recognising the role of their female ancestors as links in a lengthy chain of lineage which is common among our Polynesian cousins.

For me, the three experiences I relate above, are indicators that we have not done enough, in women's development work, to make sense of the international treaties we agree to, by localising them, to the level of the various multi-ethnic groups that are in Fiji today.

For if we did, we would not be still beating our mothers, wives, sisters and daughters, we would still not be sexually abusing them, we would continue to think nothing of these acts as we ready ourselves, gigantic Bible in hand, to attend another Sunday service or mass to preach about love and nonsense.

These are the personal views of the author and not of Partners in Community Development Fiji, for which she is the executive director.

The views expressed in this article are exclusively those of the author and are published by this newspaper based on that sole understanding.

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