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Tongans march against women’s equality

Tuesday 26 May 2015 | Published in Regional


NUKU‘ALOFA – The Tongan government is facing increasing pressure to stop the ratification of a major UN convention on women’s rights with multiple petitions, marches and a parliamentary resolution opposing the move.

Despite this, the government seems intent on ratifying the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women, or CEDAW.

Last week, three petitions were submitted to parliament totalling about 4000 signatures and two marches involving hundreds of people took place – all calling for a halt to the CEDAW ratification.

Opponents are worried ratification will open the door for same sex marriage and abortion.

But supporters say the protesters may have ulterior motives.

Tonga’s PSA secretary general, Mele ‘Amanaki, questions the motive of the nobles that joined forces with church leaders leading the march against CEDAW, raising her eyebrows and suggesting they are in fear of losing their land and titles.

And a women’s advocate says people are being distracted and misled into opposing the government ratification.

Vanessa Heleta – director of the Talitha Project, a non government organisation which promotes the development and empowerment of women – says the fear that CEDAW will lead to same sex marriages and abortion in Tonga is a misconception and people are being brainwashed.

She says the protests are saddening.

“I feel very sad and I feel that it is a waste of time because there are so many other issues we can address but it is drowned by this wrong misconception.”

A New Zealand-based Tongan church minister and former university lecturer in theology has slammed the churches and other groups opposing CEDAW.

Reverend Dr Basil Nasili Vaka‘uta called them “confused men and women who hid behind church, Bible and God in order to continue to discriminate against women.

“It is utter stupidity to protest against a very straightforward convention to ensure gender justice and gender equality,” he wrote on his Facebook site.

Supportive comments included: “It is a pity in this day and age that some people still want to use the Bible to advance their own interests.”

Another said: “Sadly, our women in Tonga are taking part in a campaign that’s against their very quest for self determination.

On Friday a 15,000 signature petition was presented to the Royal Palace requesting that the King stop the government from signing up to the UN convention on women’s rights.

Church leaders presented the petitions to Lord Luani the Master of the Royal Household, inside the Palace Office.

Church leader, Father Selwyn ‘Akau‘ola, says the request has been made for royal intervention as the government “seemed intent on going ahead with the move”.

“It sounds like they said on the radio, that the government will still go on. We are still a very young democracy but I think the people will have the last say on this.”

Reverend Dr Ma‘afu Palu of the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga, one of the organisers of the march, said the petitions were from the Tonga Catholic Women’s League, Lotu Hufia‘a Tonga, Tokaikolo Church, and a group of men from the Eastern District who came forward to support their women against CEDAW.

“If Tonga allows this convention it will take us back to pre-Christianity,” he claimed.

Placards carried by the marchers proclaimed that “CEDAW is a Secret Agent of Satan,” and “CEDAW = 666! Evil!” and – more simply – “CEDAW go to hell!”. One placard called for “Akilisi and your cabinet to step down!”.

However, the Tonga government has not changed its stance despite the intensifying opposition and has said it is to stand firm on its intention to sign CEDAW.

The Minister of Internal Affairs Fe‘ao Vakata says discussions will continue and there needs to be even more education on the matter.

“I just talked to the CEO and told him that they have to print the Tongan version of CEDAW in the paper next week and also with some frequently asked questions because I think a lot of people in Tonga still don’t understand what CEDAW is about.”

Vakata says the government will listen to people but also needs to do what is best for the country.