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Anuanua Festival marks historic shift towards equality in the Cook Islands

Monday 15 April 2024 | Written by Melina Etches | Published in Art, Entertainment, Features

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Anuanua Festival marks historic shift towards equality in the Cook Islands
The stunning tivaivai piece sewn by Rereao Vano. From Left: Leah Pareanga, Liu Williams, Rebecca Puni, Peter French, Tine Ponia, Rereao Vano and Robin Moetaua. MELINA ETCHES/24041404

Cook Islands celebrated the first anniversary of decriminalising same-sex relations with an art exhibition and speeches that highlighted the progress made towards a more inclusive society.

A year ago, the government made a bold and decisive move towards progress and inclusivity by decriminalising same-sex relations in the Cook Islands.

Homosexuality was decriminalised by an act of Parliament on June 1, 2023. Before that, male homosexual activity was illegal in the Cook Islands under the Crimes Act 1969.

The spectacular opening of the Anuanua Festival commemorating the decriminalisation of same-sex relationships brought together around 200 people to celebrate a joyous affirmation of equality.

With vibrant colours and a vigorous vibe, the Friday night opening held at the Bergman Gallery featured a catwalk of amazing Wearable Art pieces and brilliant art installation work.

Minister for Justice Vaine “Mac” Mokoroa, who tabled the Bill in Parliament, opened the anniversary celebration with a special Kia Orana to the Cook Islands rainbow family.

In his opening address, Mokoroa said: “As we gather here tonight, and anticipate the events to come, let us take a moment to reflect on the journey, the work that has brought us to this historic occasion.”

“This legislative change was not just a matter of policy; it was a profound statement of our values as a nation.

“It declared that every individual, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, deserves to live free from discrimination and fear.

“This represented a pivotal shift in our society’s approach to justice and human rights, as it is enshrined in our Constitution, Te Papa Ture Metua.”

Mokoroa said this move had solidified the Cook Islands government’s commitment to justice and equality.

“Not only has it transformed our legal framework, but it has also sparked important conversations about stigma, discrimination, and the rights of different communities,” he said.

“It has challenged us to confront our biases and prejudices and strive for a society where everyone is treated with dignity and respect, regardless of their background or circumstances.”

Mokoroa said that this legislative change didn’t just happen, it required the courage and dedication of many people over many years who worked tirelessly to make decriminalisation a reality.

He recognised the Members of Parliament, the lawmakers, community leaders, Te Tiare Association and Pride Cook Islands all played a vital role in this historic journey – and is grateful for their passion, commitment, and belief in justice.

“We have witnessed remarkable progress in our journey towards a more inclusive and compassionate society,” he said.

“Public discussions surrounding decriminalisation have evolved, and perceptions have shifted.

“We have seen a growing recognition of the inherent dignity and worth of every individual, regardless of who they love or how they identify.”

Mokoroa said, however, that work is far from over.

He said looking to the future, a collective commitment to building a society where everyone is valued, respected, and free to be their authentic selves must be reaffirmed.

And that people must continue to challenge discrimination and prejudice wherever they encounter it, and must strive to create a world where love and acceptance prevail.

He said that by embracing the spirit of inclusivity and compassion that defines the Cook Islands as a nation, “we commit ourselves to building a brighter, more equitable future for all”.

Mokoroa drew inspiration from Prime Minister Mark Brown who had reminded us that “we are a people of love and respect”.

“Let us also recommit ourselves to the values that have guided us on this journey – love, kindness, and respect, aro’a, tu oa’oa, and tu ta’aka’aka. Let us stand together as a community, united in our determination to build a better future for all our people, leaving no one behind. Let us honour those words by championing equality, justice, and human rights for all.”

In closing, Mokoroa said: “Together, we have shown that change is possible, that justice is worth fighting for, and that the future of our Cook Islands is bright and full of promise.

“Haggai 2 vs 4 – Be strong all you people of the land, declares the lord, and work … be strong, be strong, be strong and work.”

Quincy Tikotikoca won the first-placing award in the 2024 Anuanua Wearable Art Piece competition for her stunning gown modelled by Kelera Ratu.

Stephanie Copus Campbell, Australia’s Ambassador for Gender Equality, who is visiting Rarotonga to participate in the inaugural Anuanua event, had the honour of presenting the trophy to Tikotikoca.

Members of the public are welcome to view the Wearable Art Pieces and Installation Art Work at the Bergman Gallery.