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FOCUS March 2008 Volume 51

Women's Rights in the Backburner?

Vanessa Heleta*

*Vanessa Heleta is the Assistant Legal Rights Training Officer of the Legal Literacy Project in Tonga

Local 'prophets' prophesied 2008 to be a very big political year for Tonga. They are being proven right, so far.

The election of People's and Noble's Representatives in the Parliament took place in the first week of May 2008. Certain candidates, during the campaign period, said that they wanted change to take place in 2008, a move against the Standing Order of Tonga's Parliament that once a bill was passed, it could not be discussed again. The Parliament passed last year a law providing for political reforms to take place in 2010.

The election results came out last week with not even half of the registered voters voting. There are three thousand new voters registered since the last general election of 2005 but the voting dropped from fifty per cent at the last election to forty-eight per cent this time around.

Who is being represented in this recent election then? More than half of the population of Tonga is younger than thirty-five years. So whose rights are being represented and whose rights will not be fulfilled? What about the rights and voices of women and children?

Interviews with male candidates before the election revealed that issues about the rights of women and children (considered as marginal rights) were in the backburner. Candidates said that "...there are other more pressing issues like the political reform, economic development, and women and children issues will follow."

2008 is also the election year with the highest number of women-candidates. But why is it that not a single woman-candidate got elected? Even though some of the women-candidates are highly educated and capable, the social and cultural attitudes are still very much rooted in the traditions of the tiny kingdom.

The reign of her late Majesty, Queen Salote Tupou III, was a significant period because she amended the Constitution in 1951 to grant women the right to vote and stand as candidates. From the time the women were given this opportunity, only four women had been voted into Parliament as People's Representatives. This was started by Princess Si'ilikutapu (1975 -1977), followed by Papiloa Foliaki (1978-1980), 'Ofa Fusitu'a (1993-1995) and Lepolo Taunisila (2005-2007). It was only in 2006 that a woman was appointed for the first time as Cabinet Minister, 'Alisi Taumoepeau as Minister of Justice

Mele 'Amanaki, Secretary for the Public Servant Association was one of the eight women-candidates who stood for the recent election. She believes that the election results show that people think that political reform is the most important issue, which she herself campaigned for as her major issue. "The voting results indicate the decisionmaking power within the family. The majority of women voted for whoever their husbands vote for. The husbands make the decision on who the members of the family are going to vote for," she said.

'Alisi Pone, a retired teacher who ran for election for the second time, said that

The reason why a woman did not get elected was the women themselves. Firstly, women are in denial. They don't believe in themselves and [were] always putting each other down. Secondly, it's because of discrimination. Many women compare us with men and think that we are not good enough or not capable of becoming a politician. But I go in not as a female; I don't care about my womanhood. I go in as a human being and I believe in equal entitlement

The former Director of Friendly Island Human Rights and Pro-Democracy Movement, 'Akanete Lauti, who also stood for election thinks that the seventy-one candidates competing for nine seats is far too many. The results showed that people trust the candidates to push for political reform. She said:

I also have a personal hunch that there is discrimination against women in Tonga. I believe Tonga is not ready to embrace women in the political arena and I hope one day we will [be able to] jump [over] that hurdle. The saddest thing is women themselves are not supportive of us

The Electoral Supervisor Officer, Pita Vuki from the Prime Minister's Office, stated that women candidates should review their campaign strategy in order to increase the votes they get.

The second woman former Member of Parliament (1978-80), Papiloa Foliaki, observed that based on the results of the 2008 election there was a need to educate the Tongan women. She said, "I think we need to analyze why there is no woman in Parliament. The role of mothers needs to be heard in the house." She believed that women who were prepared to stand for election should be capable to cope with the pressure, have confidence and be competent. "I don't believe that we should get a woman to represent women but to represent [the] family, every member as a whole," she said.

Tonga is one of the three Pacific countries yet to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Some Members of Parliament (MPs) attribute the very slow process of ratification to "Tongan women already [having] a high rank (fahu system) in the society." But how many women enjoy the privileges brought by this high rank? Due to the shift to a more commercially-driven society the fahu system is no longer as strong an institution as it was in the past. MPs need to be educated that these privileges are only honorific not a right in itself!

The composition of the new Parliament is also worrying lots of people.

In the last Parliament, seven members of the people's representatives were from the pro-democracy movement with only two outside of it. After last week's election, the pro-democracy movement lost two seats. A new member was with the movement before the election but it is still unknown whether he will stay with the movement or not. Why is this worrying lots of people? Will a loss of two pro-democracy members have that much effect?

The agenda put out by the pro-democracy movement before the election somehow now looks shaky as far as the support of fellow People's Representatives and the unknown support of Nobles' Representatives (who returned six of the incumbent members) are concerned. The Speaker of the House lost his seat.

A noted failure in this election is the loss of a female Representative of the People from the northernmost islands group of the Niuas. Lepolo Taunisila, the only female representative of the area in the last Parliament, lost her seat. "I think the people still do not understand the importance of having a female inside Parliament. There are some issues that only women can push like CEDAW. It's a pity that people overlook the qualities of a woman and tend to focus on her personal life. This is one of the major problems - people have higher [standard for judging] women than for men," she said.

This is followed by the view of the elected male candidates to leave women's and children's rights in the backburner "until later."

The dilemma is whether or not the reform, or "change" as the pro-democracy movement calls it, will take place this year or in 2010.

Even though Tonga is getting closer to democracy, the rights of women are still ignored to a large extent. This is due to negative social and cultural attitudes toward women's participation in politics and decision-making processes.

The government's lack of political will to address this issue largely contributes to the slow progress of women's participation in politics and decision-making processes as a whole. A clear evidence is the under-represented level of women in the decision-making levels of the public sector.

Women in Tonga are so inexperienced in politics that the majority of registered women-voters do not vote for other women. The question is: why do women act in this way towards other women? The survey conducted by 'Ofa Gutteinbeil Likiliki of the Advance Women's Political Representation in Forum Island Countries among two hundred fifty women shows that women are more judgmental of other women when it comes to promotion at work, allocating positions in the community and churches, and even at the secondary school where female students compete with other female students.

During our Voters Education Program community meetings before the election some women said that they do not vote for a woman-candidate because they do not want another woman to be above them. This clearly shows that women are their worst enemies. This is an attitude that has slowed down the progress in of women in Tonga towards equality.

It is a wonder if we are trying to eliminate discrimination against women in a male-dominated society, or working to eliminate discrimination among women themselves? Some men said that "only women can sort out the problem themselves and it's a woman thing."

The eradication of these negative social and cultural attitudes toward women in politics can only happen by working together. As Papiloa Foliaki said "There is still a lot of work to be done - more education to change our attitude among us women."

For further information please contact: Legal Literacy Project, Salote Road, Fasi Nuku'alofa, Tonga; ph/fax (676) 25 991.

Additional Information on Tonga

Tonga's population lives on forty of its one hundred sixty-nine islands. More than half (64,000) of the people live on the main island of Tongatapu and half of these (34,000) live in the capital Nuku'alofa. Education and work attracted many Tongans to live overseas. Over 40,000 Tongans live in New Zealand, and more than 10,000 in Australia and many in the United States and Canada.

Culture and identity

Tonga has a complex social structure broken into three tiers: the king, the nobles, and the commoners. Each group has obligations and responsibilities to the other groups. Status and rank play a powerful role in personal relationships, even within families.


As Tonga becomes more connected to the world the traditional patterns of social security are challenged and landlessness and unemployment are major problems, especially among young people. A substantial part of the country's income is from foreign aid and money sent home by Tongans employed overseas.


Tonga has a hereditary constitutional monarchy.

Source: Global Education Website,