This film-maker changes Tongan society by telling its sad stories

“You must be willing to tell women’s stories to others and communicate it in such a way that forces listeners to think, reflect and push them to do what they can do to help change the situation.” ‘Ofa Guttenbeil-Likiliki
Director, Women & Children Crisis Center, Tonga

Women’s rights activist and filmmaker ‘Ofa Guttenbeil-Likiliki believes in the power of story-telling, even when they’re not feel good stories. By daring to tell the harrowing stories of real life survivors of violence against women and girls (VAWG), she has made this pressing issue hard to ignore in her native Tonga and brought about change in the face of strident opposition.

“When one chooses to work in the area of empowering women, you must be ready and willing to tell the women’s’ stories to others,” says Ofa,  who has served as Director of the country’s Women & Children Crisis Center (WCCC), which she helped establish in 2009. She adds: “You have to communicate it in such a way that it forces listeners to not just think and reflect about what has been communicated to them but rather it should go further in that it pushes the listeners to do what they can do to help change the situation or raise more awareness around it. That’s what I believe my primary role is working in the space of women’s empowerment.”

One of her earlier short social change documentaries Pink Hibiscus produced in collaboration with WCCC, won the ‘Activist Award’ in 2011 from the Global Social Change Film Festival & Institute (GSCFFI).  The short documentary challenged perceptions and myths around child sexual abuse in relation to incest. In 2014 ‘Ofa was awarded the Commonwealth Pan-Pacific Media Award for Best Concept for a Feature Documentary.  The main survivor story conveyed in the documentary concept was used as a verbatim piece to lobby the Tonga Police Commissioner to establish a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the Tonga Police and the WCCC. As a result, the WCCC established the first One-Stop-Shop Crisis Service for women and children survivors of violence in the Pacific where a police officer is now stationed at WCCC to prevent the re-victimisation of women having to re-tell her traumatic story to several difference agencies. The WCCC also has a registered nurse and access to legal support through the One-Stop service.

In 2016, ‘Ofa was selected as a recipient of the Commonwealth Shorts Program where she wrote, directed and acted in her short film The Black Pen which is due for release in November 2017.  The film is about the complexities that VAWG counsellors face when working with survivors and the challenges they encounter such as being forced to consider cultural reconciliation processes versus accessing justice.

In 2010 the WCCC, under the leadership of Guttenbeil-Likiliki, received the prestigious Pacific Community (SPC) Human Rights Award in recognition of their work in promoting women’s human rights in Tonga.  The WCCC again received recognition in 2015 by being awarded First Prize in the national Human Rights Awards facilitated by SPC and the Regional Rights Resource Team.  In 2012 and 2013, Guttenbeil-Likiliki was nominated for the USA Secretary of State International Women of Courage Award for her work in the area of women and children’s rights in Tonga.

Visit the WCCC website to read some some of the stories told by ‘Ofa. And here is a video of the (difficult) story of Mele, a survivor of sexual abuse, and the role the Women and Children Crisis Centre can play in supporting survivors of abuse:
 Photo : WCCC (‘Ofa Guttenbeil-Likiliki, on the right with the orange necklace, with the staff of the Women & Children Crisis Center of Tonga)
(This portrait of ‘Ofa Guttenbeil-Likiliki was first published by the Pacific Community for the 70 Inspiring Women campaign, it is reproduced here with their permission.)

The 70 Inspiring Pacific Women campaign has been produced by the Pacific Community (SPC) in partnership with Australian Aid and Pacific Women. The campaign marks the 70th anniversary of SPC, and leads up to the 13th Triennial Conference of Pacific Women and 6th Meeting of Ministers for Women in Suva (Fiji) from 2nd to 5th October 2017.

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