The unspoken crisis of domestic violence in Tonga

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By Kalafi Moala

Nuku’alofa, Tonga – It is getting out of control. Domestic violence in the Kingdom of Tonga has become one of the most common infringements of the law and most damaging occurrences to the lives of women and children. Even during the Covid-19 lock down, for the first 15 days, there was an average of 8 cases per day reported to the Women and Children Crisis Center (WCCC).

‘Ofa Guttenbeil Likiliki, Director of WCCC, told a group of journalists and media people in Nuku’alofa that for the last 5 years, they have handled 1718 new cases reported to the center. “But 85% of women who have suffered domestic violence are repeat victims,” she said, “Who continue to return to the same environment where they have suffered abuse.”

“And this is why we had to deal with over 5,000 repeat cases of domestic violence in the last 5 years in our center.”  She answered in the affirmative when asked whether there may have been more cases of domestic violence that do not seek help from WCCC.

Acting Police Commissioner, Tevita Vailea, who spoke at the same Press Club event, said that between January and June of this year, there were 537 domestic violence cases reported to Tonga police, and 117 of Police Safety Orders (PSO); but only 99 cases of prosecutions recorded. He could not give a number to the cases that may have been unreported. But it is estimated that most domestic violence cases in Tonga go unreported.

According to Commissioner Vailea, there needs to be cooperative efforts between the community and the Police to break the cycle of domestic violence. He said: “We have a responsibility to our future generations to break the cycle of violence. The home should be a place of peace that children want to come home to, not stay away because of the fear of violence.”

“We all have a responsibility for the safety of our citizens, and to protect women and children from being assaulted and humiliated in a place that should be safe, the family home,” Commissioner Vailea said. 

“Domestic violence is an offence in Tonga,” he said. “And Tonga Police urges people to report it to allow police to prosecute perpetrators and bring them to account for their conduct.”

Violence against women and girls however has further degraded to an unacceptable level with an excessive number of cases of sexual assault and rape. In fact, there have been rape cases reported weekly from the courts, even during the Covid 19 lockdown.

‘Ofa Guttenbeil Likiliki says there have been a number of rape cases in Tonga when under family pressure, the victims end up marrying the rapists. She told the story of a case where the family of the rapist goes to the family of the victim, and asks for forgiveness, taking with them, according to Tongan tradition, a pig and other food items, as well as cash. The victim’s family responds by forgiving the perpetrator, and orders the girl to marry the person who violated her body.

‘Ofa Likiliki Guttenbeil, Director of WCCC

Imagine marrying the person who raped you!

“There are a few cases like this that I know of,” ‘Ofa Guttenbeil Likiliki said.

But why is there such an increase in domestic violence, and even sexual assault and rape in Tonga? ‘Ofa was asked if she thinks the “Tongan nature” is a violent nature?

“I do not think so, no more than any other people in any culture. But, the chief problem we have found in counseling is that it is normal for most Tongan men to think that socially, they are in a position of power in the home, and they have entitlements, which include other members of the family carrying out, without question, what they want,” ‘Ofa explains.

According to those who have worked to break the cycle of domestic violence, mostly committed by men, there needs to be a mindset change, an attitude change in men, as they do not have any rights whatsoever to assault their family members, not physically, psychologically, let alone sexually.

Dr. Sione Tu’itupou Fotu, retired former head of Ports Authority, and a writer on social development issues, reminded the Press Club that in the long run, the solution is spiritual, and needs to deal with the problem of sin.

“People do not recognize that it is because of sin in the heart and lives of man, that drives people to commit violence. We must solve the problem of sin, which requires repentance and a return to God. It is a spiritual solution that is needed here,” he says.

What about the law? Are the laws of Tonga adequate to deal with this growing problem of domestic violence and abuse?

Commissioner Vailea says the Family Protection Act provides the police with the necessary powers to protect victims of domestic violence and prosecute offenders. He emphasizes however that the Police “relies on the community to report crimes against women and children, particularly those committed in the home environment.”

“It is the courage of victims coming forward and condemning violence in the home environment that allows police to do their job and send a message to the community that perpetrators of domestic violence will be prosecuted,” he said.

Whatever approach needs to be taken in order to deal with this growing problem, the reality is, a crisis is happening in this religiously charged country in regards to domestic violence, and as yet there is still little being done to combat the problem.

But for now, there seems to be the overwhelming agreement among those attempting to tackle the problem, that it would take a multifaceted approach employing the spiritual, the social, educational, and police enforcement, to help save the Tongan home!

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