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Support for strong and courageous Tongan women

A practice Parliament for women through which Tongan women who want to be candidates for Parliament can display their capacity is being prepared for April in Tonga.

Tonga’s Speaker Lord Fakafanua and Clerk Gloria Guttenbeil-Pole’o confirmed this work in progress in an interview with Asia Pacific Economic News (APEN) in Wellington at the end of the Conference of Speakers and Presiding Officers of the Commonwealth, (CSPOC ) January 2014. UWWomen are amongst technical and financial supporters. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Australian government are also supporting Tonga with other democratic activities over the next few years.

The proposed practice Parliament is not a mentoring setting – it is where prospective women candidates can show their political skills in Parliament said the Auckland University arts graduate who became Speaker at age 28. Lord Fakafanua says there is no institutional barrier to women entering Tonga’s Parliament – yet in the 2010 general election no women were elected. Women can do it – they already occupy senior public service roles in Tonga he said at the beginning of Tonga’s 2014 general election year.

Tongans who want women in their Parliament have allies – some of them are former New Zealand MPs willing to mentor women political candidates. Other support comes from other Pacific Islands women in Parliaments.  Niki Rattle, Speaker of the Cook Island Parliament spoke at the CSPOC conference about making Parliament relative to the people, including gender sensitivity. She was financed by New Zealand to be a keynote speaker in Wellington to CSPOC – her audience included Tonga’s Speaker Lord Fakafanua and Clerk Gloria Pole’o.

Niki Rattle does not want to give offence to other cultures but does have a long term commitment to advocating for women she stressed at the end of her interview with APEN. Last year Lord Fakafanua told Asia Pacific Economic News (APEN) of his commitment to helping more women get into Tonga’s Parliament – and in January Niki Rattle told spoke of steps she had taken to encourage a Tongan Red Cross worker to change his cultural practice.

When Niki Rattle headed Cook Island Red Cross she encouraged a Tongan to help prevent HIV Aids. The Tongan told her he could not deal with such sexual topics in his culture  –  “we cannot speak about things like that”. Niki Rattle says cultural practices that don’t  work against cultural practices such as sexually transmitted diseases and for women in Parliament should be changed.

Niki Rattle wants men and women to work for empowering women in Tonga’s Parliament. She says New Zealanders should also help the cause, and works also with Australians to foster the political participation of Cook Island women.

In the APEN interview as she warmed to her theme, the wife and mother, health worker, advocate and Speaker talked about the hard aspect of men and soft aspect of women. Mothers and fathers are different – in families they both have contributions to make. She wants men and women to each be able to contribute to national families. The Cook Islands woman singled out the contribution Queen Salote had made to Tonga, and commended Tonga’s legendary leader as a role model.

“Women have a big role to play in nurturing our national family” says Niki Rattle, who named some of the current strong women on Tongan and other Pacific Island stages.

“Women should support women. Men should support women. They should apply their experience of marriage at a national level” she says.

The Commonwealth has a number of programmes to support  Speakers and Presiding Officers – CSPOC’s Director General is Canada based. The London based Commonwealth Foundation – and the Vanuatu based PACMAS programme support Tonga programmes of the Centre for Citizenship Education to empower women

New Zealand and Australian Speakers each reiterated at CSPOC it is their strategy to assist Pacific Islands democracies financially and with knowhow. “It is in our interest”  New Zealand Speaker David Carter says. New Zealand’s Office of the Clerk provides some of the knowhow – as the CSPOC conference organisation illustrated. Australian House of Representatives Speaker Bronwyn Bishop stresses Australian wish “to help strong and courageous Pacific Islands women”.

This report, from a Pacific Islands Citizenship Education Capacity Building Programme 2013-2016 (PICE) series in from Anthony Haas, Asia Pacific Economic News representative in the NZ Parliament’s Press Gallery and Director, Centre for Citizenship Education), is supported by the Commonwealth Foundation and the Tongan Office of the Clerk. Opinion is the responsibility of Anthony Haas,, not of the supporting institutions.

Updated 24 January 2014

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