The Kingdom of Tonga is a constitutional monarchy made up of a collection of islands in the South Pacific. Of its 170 islands, only 36 are inhabited. The population, at approximately 106,000, primarily resides on the island of Tongatapu. Human rights in Tonga are generally respected, with low rates of poverty and high standards of education and health. As in all countries across the world, there is room for improvement, specifically when it comes to women’s rights.
According to a U.S. State Department report on human rights in Tonga, domestic violence, discrimination against women and women’s lack of rights to land are amongst the most prevalent issues faced by the country.
Tongan NGO Legal Literacy Project estimates that 31 to 62 percent of women in Tonga are victims of domestic abuse by their partners. Statistics may be higher, as it is likely that there are many unreported cases of abuse. Police forces maintain a “no-drop” policy regarding cases of domestic violence. The “no-drop” policy means that once a case of domestic violence has been filed, these cases cannot be dropped and must move on to be dealt with in the magistrates’ courts. Victims and perpetrators are counseled and the police force works alongside the National Center for Women and Children and the Women and Children Crisis Center to provide safe homes for at-risk of abuse women, and girls and boys under 14.
These safety mechanisms put in place for victims of domestic abuse are important in safeguarding the emotional and physical health of women and children. Nevertheless, child marriage prevails in Tonga, something that has proven to hinder girls’ emotional and physical well-being and access to education. According to Human Rights Watch, there have been more than 100 marriages of Tongan children, primarily girls, since 2015.
The “Let Girls Be Girls” campaign is championed by the local women’s rights group, Talitha Project, and Tonga’s Ministry of Justice. The campaign calls for the law to make the minimum age of marriage 18. “Let Girls Be Girls” has largely been well-received,and even Deputy Speaker of the House Lord Tu’iafitu called the current legislation “embarrassing.”
Although steps have been taken to minimize violence against girls and women, there remain legislative barriers that prevent women from fully engaging with society. Inheritance laws preventing women from claiming land hinder their abilities to act as decision makers. Currently, Tongan law dictates that only male heirs can receive their father’s estate. In fact, a son born out of wedlock has rights to inheritance before a widow or daughter.
While legislative measures are being taken to legally reform the Tongan system, there needs to be greater awareness of how societal expectations can perpetuate gender inequalities. Across many countries and diverse cultures, these inequalities are reinforced in the domestic space, so legislation must work in tandem with awareness to improve the state of women’s rights, which are human rights in Tonga.
– Sydney Nam