'Me tiaki i te whare tangata' - (the house of life must be protected)

By Te Kuru o te Marama Dewes

When she was 20, Joanne Tito (Taranaki, Ngāti Pikiao, Tūhourangi - Ngāti Wāhiao) was diagnosed with CIN 3, the development of abnormal cells in the cervix, which can lead to cancer if not treated. Since that time, she has been a strong advocate for women to have their cervical smears.

"I was still young at the time, I went to the doctor and was diagnosed with CIN 3, so I went to another doctor who tested my cervix, and then I had an operation to have those malign cells removed."

Since her diagnosis, she has had her smear test annually, and acknowledges the reluctance that some women may have about them. 

"The person who's doing the smear, the woman needs to feel comfortable with that person. We have choices. If you want a Māori smear-taker, if you don't want a Māori smear-taker, I know for myself personally I don't want to know the person, just makes it easier for me but a wahine definitely."

"For us it's quite a sacred place, but in saying that, it's not so sacred that we can't look after it. Me tiaki i te whare tangata."

Tito has curated an exhibition with wāhine Māori of all ages, some whom were cervical cancer survivors, in an attempt to reach women through the medium of art and storytelling.  

"It's about health, an avenue for women to connect with the conversations and knowledge around cervical smears, so women go and have their smears done."

Jo Tito has composed karakia, with Taranaki Tohunga Ruakere Hond, about the mana of te whare tangata. The karakia has been used by Ngahuia Murphy in her book Waiwhero, which presents Māori narratives on waikura and the divine female element. 

'Māori and Pākehā perspectives are different. Whakapapa comes from this part of the body. This is the house of life, a house for people. The whenua (land) outside grows trees and plants but this whenua (placenta) within the body grows babies within the womb of the mother. When the whenua (placenta) comes out, it's returned to the land. So it's not just a uterus, there are many narratives about this part of the woman, so it must be protected."

New Zealand is behind other countries in making it easier for women to self-test. 

"They're trying to advocate for it to come to New Zealand as well. If that happens it would just be awesome. It would mean we don't have to go through that invasive test... That would solve a lot of things. But, in the meantime, we still need to have wāhine go have tests."

Tito says while it may be an uncomfortable experience for women, getting tested annually can save their lives . 

"This is your life, and it's only five minutes to go and get tested."