Fusitu’a on climate and gender

Lord Fusitu’a speaking about women’s vulnerabilities in relation to climate change and migration at the 2016 Asian Forum of Parliamentarians on Population and Development, Bangkok, Thailand. Photograph: AFPPD.

Many areas in South East Asia and in the Pacific also, women are responsible for farming.  The impacts of climate change and migration make farming much more difficult and therefore have an economic impact on households.

Lord Fusitu’a


Lord Fusitu’a put it out there for Tonga.  The noble MP for the Niua Islands had strong views for a middle-age man talking about gender equality at an international conference for legislators.  The 2016 Asian Parliamentarians Forum he attended in Bangkok with the Speaker of the House Lord Tu’ivakano and Sita Lavulavu, Tonga’s only woman MP, focussed on empowering women and girls.

Lord Tu’ivakano (second from left) and Lord Fusitu’a (seventh from left) at the 2016 Asian Forum of Parliamentarians on Population and Development, Bangkok, Thailand. Photograph: Fusitu’a.

A theme taken straight from the United Nations fifth sustainable development goal known as SDG5, Fusitu’a elected to discuss women’s rights.  The amount of power that women possessed under the law, compared to men that is, was the touchiest subject in his small island state; a contentious matter known to make even the most long-winded Tongan male politicians go quiet.

Invited to dialogue on two panels, the first on women’s health, and the second on women’s economic participation and rights in relation to migration and climate change, Fusitu’a was the Tongan delegation backbone.  The man simply had spine.

Clearly he demonstrated his strength in regional politics was a sharp intellect coupled with a sincere social conscience.  Brains and integrity bound together produced an ability to grasp complex issues by making sense of their gravity to a general public.

Because here’s the thing: he argued a line of reasoning that politicians in the Asian and Pacific regions hadn’t altogether caught on to and structured policy around.  The Fusitu’a rationale was that women in developing states like Tonga, which were agricultural-based societies, farmed their family lands.  Their ability to farm effectively, however, and cultivate food for households and local economies was thwarted by climate change and migration.

Tonga’s only woman MP Sita Lavulavu and Lord Fusitu’a at the 2016 Asian Forum of Parliamentarians on Population and Development at Bangkok, Thailand. Photograph: Fusitu’a.

Part of his argument crossed over to academia.  University research echoed a similar position.  The storyline was climate change hits developing countries of the tropical south the hardest so the farming sector, the country’s baseline economy, suffers, collapses, and almost dies.


[T]he most important impacts of global climate change will be felt among the populations, predominantly in developing countries, referred to as “subsistence” or “smallholder” farmers.  Their vulnerability to climate change comes from being predominantly located in the tropics, and from their [limited] capacity to adapt to change.

John F. Morton


Was there a difference between what researchers were saying and the Tongan noble MP?  Academics in Western universities tended to hinge on one thing: the limitations of climate adaptation for poor countries.

John F. Morton contended that “the lack of standardised definitions” in international policy and law explaining what subsistence farmer meant, posed a major weakness.  His answer was to devise “a conceptual framework for understanding the diverse forms of [climate] impacts in an integrated manner.”

By comparison, the Fusitu’a approach was women centred.  He affirmed that “the protection of women and girls” was essential to the very purpose of policy and law making at international and national level.


As a parliamentarian, the onus is upon us to attend meetings like this; to dialogue and liaise with parliamentarians from various other countries on a regional and a sub-regional level so that we get some sort of uniformity of policy and legislation, which we then bring back to our countries and enact, so that wherever you go, you are able to ensure that there’s a uniformity across the board for the protection of women and girls.

Lord Fusitu’a


Fusitu’a reorganised the conventional order of things by putting gender at the heart of climate justice.  By doing so, he urged climate dialogues to consider the relationship to gender equality.

Climate adaptation had to be more than just policy language for the state to truly mitigate the ill-effects of climate change, and thereby, prevent forced migration.  By his analysis, one critical factor prevailed: the role and place of women and girls.

Women were the most important ingredient to sustaining the social glue of families, villages, and societies.  In small island countries, women’s unpaid work as farmers and primary contributors to household food supplies ought to be recognised by the state as the informal system of economy that formally held the country together. 

Fusitu’a had reframed the climate question for Tonga.  It now read differently: how could the United Nations distinct sustainable development goals of gender equality and climate change be decisively aligned, given that women were absolutely fundamental to sustaining life on our islands?  Think about it.  He was so right.


Dr Teena Brown is an anthropologist and senior lecturer in the Faculty of Maori and Indigenous Development at Auckland University of Technology.

Melino Maka is the Chair of the Tongan Advisory Council in Auckland and the publisher of the news and current affairs website, tonganz.net

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