20 Mar 2018

Outrage in Tonga over apparent ban on girls playing rugby

6:55 pm on 20 March 2018

There has been outrage among Tongans over an official letter purporting to ban girls at the country's state school from playing rugby and boxing.

The letter from the Ministry of Education informed staff at Tonga High School that the girls shouldn't be playing such sports because it goes against young women's dignity and Tongan culture and traditions.

rugby ball

Photo: 123RF

Women's rights advocate 'Ofa Guttenbeil-Likiliki was one of those outraged at the letter.

She said the thinking behind it was archaic.

"It takes us right back to the thinking that education is only academic and for girls to remain in that kind of academic lane, sports is just the alternative for boys.

The letter from the Tongan government

The letter from the Tongan government Photo: Facebook/ So Tongan

"It is really just taking us back from all the work we have done so far in trying to achieve and bring forward gender equality in Tonga."

Ms Guttenbeil-Likiliki said culture was being used as an excuse and history is full of strong, brave Tongan women, including female athletes who have been inspirational in recent times, like New Zealand's Teuila Fotu-Moala.

"Teuila, who got the female player of the tournament for the women's rugby league world cup, that story hit Tonga last year and made a lot of people proud.

"To see these women excelling in sport, I mean, you look at Valerie Adams. This letter from the Ministry of Education has taken us a hundred years backwards."

Tonga's women's sevens coach Hoko Tuivai said she respected traditions and culture but times were changing.

Ms Tuivai said the move would mean some girls miss out on the opportunities that rugby and other sports could provide.

"It's just closing doors, closing all opportunities for women especially leading up to the Pacific Games and Olympics, as we have set our path to work towards the 2020 Olympics and here in Tonga, women's rugby has a bigger chance to reach those international competitions than men."

Hoko Tuivai said sport could also be a unifying factor as illustrated by last year's feats by the national rugby league team which triggered parades and street parties across the country.

Dame Valerie Adams is a a two-time Olympic champion and four time World champion in shot put, who competed for New Zealand but is half Tongan.

In response to the letter she posted on Facebook that "Tongan women must be free to choose their destiny, and not be held back by misguided and stubborn misinterpretation".

Valerie Adams responds to Tonga govt

Photo: Facebook

Govt says impact of Gita prompted letter

However, acting CEO of the Ministry of Education Manu 'Akau'ola said concerns about the impact of the recent devastating Cyclone Gita were behind the letter.

"Our minister had directed that all government schools, because of the cyclone, [that] they are not going to be involved in any sports during this term because we have already lost enough school time - class time.

"So his direction is not because we're not supportive of the sporting events, it's just make up the lost time we've lost because of the cyclone."

Manu 'Akau'ola said he will be checking higher up to see if the letter's instructions were really what the education minister intended.

New Zealand PM critical of directive

The New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, has joined the chorus of criticism over the Tongan Government's apparent ban on girls playing rugby or boxing.

Jacinda Ardern visited Fasi Government Primary School to see the destruction caused by cyclone Gita.

Jacinda Ardern visited Fasi Government Primary School to see the destruction caused by cyclone Gita. Photo: Pool photo / Michael Craig / New Zealand Herald

Ms Ardern says New Zealand's aid support for sports in Tonga would not be threatened but she disagrees with the directive.

"As a school student I played touch rugby and I would encourage all the young women to engage in whatever sporting code they are interested in." said Jacinda Adern.

"We do provide funding via MFAT to Tonga to encourage children's participation in sports. And so a young woman will still be able to do that I understand through their villages, even if this dictate is made by these schools."