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Tonga ready to sign CEDAW and move forward

Nuku'alofa, Tonga

by Mary Lyn Fonua

Tonga’s discriminatory laws against women do not have to be changed before Tonga ratifies CEDAW - the international convention that is recognised globally as the most important human rights treaty for women. This week strong recommendations are being made to a parliamentary standing committee and then to Cabinet to sign the 33 year old convention, in what will be a landmark decision for Tonga’s international reputation and its women.

“Tonga can ratify CEDAW. This allows us to continue discussions internally about amending our laws,” Lopeti Senituli, the CEO of Internal Affairs, told a roundtable meeting with relevant stakeholders from the community on February 12 in Nuku‘alofa.

Tonga's reservations to accompany the ratification of CEDAW will be resubmitted to Cabinet for consideration, possibly this Friday, February 27.

“We are recommending that Tonga sign it,” said Lopeti today.

The 33-year-old Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) is one of the most highly ratified international human rights conventions, having the support of 188 States parties. When governments become States parties to a convention, they can enter “reservations or declarations” by identifying particular elements of a treaty they will not be bound to.

Only seven countries have not signed CEDAW and Tonga is on that list — in company with Iran, Sudan, South Sudan and Somalia - four nations known for their human rights violations. The other two countries are Palau and the USA, which is regarded as “the only democracy that has not ratified the convention ”- although internally President Carter signed CEDAW at its outset and President Obama has also committed wholeheartedly to it.

Tonga’s new parliamentary Standing Committee on Social Affairs, chaired by the Minister of Internal Affairs Hon. Fe'ao Vakata will hear a presentation tomorrow, February 24 from Tongan women and stakeholders who have been working on CEDAW for many years. The Minister is seeking clarification and open and honest dialogue around the issues that they are not up to par with, in preparation for the final submissions to Cabinet

“We are making two recommendations to the parliamentary committee: 1. to ratify CEDAW without reservations; or 2. to ratify CEDAW with declarations,” said ‘Ofa Guttenbeil Likiliki, who will join a ministerial delegation to New York in two weeks time for Tonga’s presentation to the United Nation’s Commission on the Status of Women, from March 9-20.

Tonga’s reservations

Over the last two years Tonga has prepared a list of reservations it makes with respect to only five out of the 30 Articles in the convention, with which it mostly agrees.

Tonga has reservations on Article 2, where parties agree to pursue a policy of eliminating discrimination.

Tonga is cautious over clauses in Article 10 on equal education, and in Article 12 on access to health care.

Furthermore, Tonga has reservations over clauses in Article 14 covering rural women and their access to land; and Article 16 about marriage and the family, which are inconsistent with Tonga's current patriarchal and patrilineal land system.


Tonga's roundtable discussion on February 12 was made up of a cross-section of the community, sitting alongside women’s leaders and advocates for women’s rights, and clergymen.

Tuna Aleamotu'a, Technical Advisor to Tonga’s oldest women's organisation the Langafonua-'a-Fafine Tonga, told the roundtable that “the fact is that the law is discriminatory”. She believed that attitudes held by some people were an obstacle and that education and understanding was the key to women's progress in Tonga.

“The last land commission was poorly attended and it appeared that people could not care less ... Only women who are educated are pushing for those who are not,” she said.

These educated women want Tonga's Cabinet to ratify CEDAW and thereby make a commitment to understand the issues more clearly.

“It won’t kill the men,” said Tuna. “The older, more conservative ones feel threatened by it, but the modern ones don’t mind at all - they can see through it.”

The discussion recognised the fact that the inequalities in many of Tonga's outdated laws and Constitution need to be addressed, and that the inequalities adversely impact Tonga's economy and are felt across all sectors.

CEDAW offers a commitment to dialogue, which is particularly important for countries, like Tonga, who do not have any women sitting in parliament.


Tonga's previous government refused to ratify the convention between 2009 and 2013 “as a matter of international convenience’. That was when Cabinet asked the Attorney General to draw up Tonga’s reasons for its reservations and to provide “justification” for them.

“Cabinet said come back with very clear areas where there is conflict between the Constitution and the national laws of Tonga,” said Lopeti. “So it has taken us nearly two years to come back with this very clear list of reservations.”

The main areas of conflict are in land ownership and allocations, inheritance, succession of the throne and nobility, along with concerns over allowing education on family planning and the right to freely choose a spouse.

Now the list of reservations will be resubmitted to Cabinet as early as this week for its "final reconsideration".

When Tonga ratifies CEDAW, Tonga's law and Constitution will still prevail over all international laws.

 “Any changes to the land and succession laws in Tonga will occur when Tonga is ready and the king and people so wish,” said Lopeti.

Tuna (78), the widow of Lord Fielakepa, observed that families in Tonga had become smaller units and more nuclear than they were in the past. “To me, I think we should have an open mind and try to see ahead and try to see the problems that will increase. [For example] Two people work hard and develop land but have no sons.”


The proponents of CEDAW clearly stated their hope that the Cabinet would no longer delay the ratification and that “fear” should not be used as “an excuse” by Cabinet for not ratifying CEDAW this time.

Advocates said excuses contradicted the work done by government to develop a national gender policy.

Former parliamentarian, Lepola Taunisila, said that Women's Affairs had been trying to promote gender equality in the national gender policy development, and that government “should not be trying to defend the discrimination against women.”

‘Ofa Guttenbeil Likiliki, director, of the Women and Children Crisis Centre pointed out that the Rights of the Child Convention ensured equality between girls and boys, and that Tonga had already ratified CIC. “We've said ‘Yes’ for our children, so we should ratify CEDAW,” she said.

Vanessa Heleta who runs the Talitha Project for the development of young women, said there are a lot of things in the Tongan Constitution which need looking at.

She said there were misconceptions in Tonga from opponents to the ratification of CEDAW. “They worry about the abortion issues and the same sex marriage issue, the land rights issue, but we can ratify and at the same time say no, we will not allow the same sex marriage and abortion.”

Dr Toakase Fakakovikaetau of the Ministry of Health told the roundtable, “This is history in the making. It is a big challenge for equal opportunity in Tonga”.


The women advocates at the roundtable perceived that their main antagonists are the church ministers, the faifekau who propagate fear of the future. There were at least four faifekau in the room. One of them shouted, as if from the pulpit, “You women should know your place!”

Vanessa said, “They are using the bible to say the male is the head of the family and they say to us don't be selfish, women are under men - just be content where you are. They all know it is unfair. When they say there is no need to address the gaps...I feel disgusted - absolutely disgusted,” she said.


 “I don’t have a place,” said Tuna. "Where is our place? It’s everywhere. There is no place. In a good loving home you don’t need to define a place to know where you are.

“When the faifekau says women should know their place - it’s the faifekau who should know his place. His place is to be humble and know his people. There are many women-headed households in Tonga - just see the census,” she said.

“But in my life, in our culture, I’m the head of the people who are dependent on me, somebody has to lead, so that we can survive. But with my leadership I have to look at each one and cater for their shortcomings. It's difficult but it doesn't mean that you lead and dominate, it doesn't mean that nobody speaks and suggests anything.”

Development restraints

Tonga’s complex patrilineal land laws forbid widows from mortgaging hereditary lands.

“They say: why do you want a mortgage to develop land when you have relatives overseas?,” said Tuna.

“Well, I've got relatives overseas, but they are just as poor as I am.”

Tuna believed that change would come, whether or not Tonga signed CEDAW.

“Some men are leasing and selling away land, so to me that emotional attachment is not as strong now, it is much easier to let land go, whereas before they felt with all their might they had to hold on to it.”

She also stressed that women should be aware of what their land residence rights are now. For example, widows are allowed a life interest in their husband's tax or town allotment or estate, but only “if I claim within a one year period after my husband's death - but not many widows are aware of that.”

Tonga’s Women in Law Association has tried to educate women. “WILA had pamphlets about women's rights and went out on workshops, but to me it’s still not enough, there are still people who are not aware that women have to register their interest.”

Vanessa said if women want to build or improve houses in Tonga they should be able to do it with the same legal security enjoyed by men.

"I think if women have access to land rights that's when we will really develop economically and socially in Tonga. That's what's holding us back"


It was notable that after listening to the discussions, the faifekau who had preached that women should be “content with their place”, offered his apology to the women present.

Luisa Manuofetoa, Deputy CEO of the new Women's Social Development Unit said, “his apology was acknowledgment that he was seeing a bit of light, that maybe he heard, because when he was preaching he was very passionate. We need to open up these discussions because otherwise within their own groups they are never going to see the other side,” she said.


Developed by the UN Commission on the Status of Women, the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women addresses the advancement of women, describes the meaning of equality and sets forth guidelines on how to achieve it.

It is not only an international bill of rights for women but also an agenda of action. Countries that ratify CEDAW agree to take concrete steps to improve the status of women and end discrimination and violence against women. The Convention focuses on three key areas:

  • civil rights and the legal status of women
  • reproductive rights
  • cultural factors influencing gender relations.


The Attorney General in his list stated that Tonga makes reservations with respect to provisions in CEDAW Articles 2, 10, 12, 14 and 16. 'Reservations made by the Kingdom of Tonga to the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women'. 16 pages.