From Matangi Tonga Magazine Vol. 18, no. 2, August 2003.
Because our society still condones male violence, the victims cannot be properly protected.
Tonga’s legal system cannot effectively protect the victims of domestic violence until there is a change of attitudes and behavior across society.
“There is absolutely no excuse for violence against your wife or child in your home…it’s bad, its illegal, it’s an impediment to social and economic development, and most devastatingly, it damages the well-being of families.”
This was the message from Teimumu Tapueluelu, the President of the Women in Law Society, in her paper on ‘Domestic Violence, the Legal Remedy’, presented to the Tongan History Association Conference in Nuku‘alofa, 8-11 July.
She said clear messages should be sent through our legal system through stronger penalties and process interventions. Other laws should be reviewed and reformed, to repeal parts that may encourage domestic violence, and there was a need for more statistical data.
In Tonga, as in many other countries, it was impossible to provide a complete national profile of the number of victims of domestic violence, because measuring the prevalence of violence is a complex task, she said.
“The biggest barrier in collecting comprehensive data lies in our society’s condoning of male violence in the home. It is ‘embarrassing’ to publicly air such family secrets, and victims are stigmatised rather than supported.” Teimumu said this led to the majority of domestic violence cases being unreported.
“Our society allows men to make excuses and sometimes hold women and children responsible for the violence perpetrated against them. Much of the oppression of women and children in the home directly benefits men, and in most cases this oppression is accompanied by violence. Men who are violent towards members of their households are behaving from within a belief system, which informs them that they have a right to supremacy, to own and control their women and children.”
Teimumu said that the effective combat of domestic violence, “means no less than a comprehensive attitudinal and behavioural change across society. Only then, can the legal system, or any other support system, be used effectively to protect the victims of domestic violence.”
The term domestic violence is not specifically defined in Tongan laws, but could be deemed criminal offences under the category of assault, depending on the nature of the injury inflicted, or classified as sexual offences.
The penalties for assault ranged from imprisonment of up to one year to up to 10 years, while penalties for sexual offences ranged from up to 2 years to up to life imprisonment.
“Our laws also specifically protect children and young persons, where a person over the age of 16 who has custody of a child or young person, and who assaults, ill-treats, neglects or abandons that child or young person is liable to a custodial sentence of up to 3 years.
“With the most terrible consequence of any act of domestic violence being death, sentences of up to 14 years for manslaughter and up to life, or the death penalty, for murder,” she said.
Because of prevailing attitudes, the authorities often viewed domestic violence offences as outside their jurisdiction. “Minimum penalties are often imposed or, the views are that families are better served by solving their own problems.”
Teimumu said that because the majority of victims of domestic violence were overwhelmingly women and children, complaints to the police were often promptly withdrawn due to family or financial pressures.
The second major barrier to effective enforcement of the laws against domestic violence was the lack of resources and trained personnel within the relevant authorities to handle domestic violence cases.
Thirdly, Tonga lacked the proper support system for victims in terms of alternative shelter, financial support and other such institutions, she said.
However, Government had approved a National Gender and Development Policy together with an Implementation Plan for setting strategic directions on eliminating domestic violence, and fostering a Tongan society in which victims of domestic violence are safe.
Critical to the fostering of a society intolerant to domestic violence was awareness and education on the issues.
“There are many NGOs in Tonga, which have worked relentlessly over the years to assist abused women and children through provisions of counseling, legal advice, training and development, education, medical assistance and more.”
Teimumu suggested that the law could be strengthened by, for example, the concept of compulsory prosecution where there was sufficient evidence. So that if a woman has laid a complaint against her husband for domestic violence, the fact that she later withdraws that complaint should not stop the police from proceeding with the case.
One example of condoned violence in Tongan laws was the offence of rape, where a wife is deemed to have consented to an act of rape by the husband unless consent had been withdrawn officially by process of law.
“Violence against women and children in the homes will be properly addressed only when victims are provided with immediate safety and protection, domestic violence is treated as a serious offence, there is comprehensive attitudinal change across society, and women are empowered through attaining equal rights,” said Teimumu.