Tonga’s uniqueness of culture in the way it assigned the roles of men and women provided a backdrop of respect and the ultimate benchmark in which women and girls should be empowered.
Lord Fusitu’a inherited a challenge. An emerging political leader for his country, the task at hand was how to select and merge aspects of Tongan and Western cultures to advance development. Bridging a traditional understanding of the world that belonged to an older generation of parents and grandparents, with ideas of global citizenship inherited by children and grandchildren, was easier said than done.
It was true to say Fusitu’a was a pragmatist who applied real politik to his parliamentary work. By this, he saw international politics as a system of power structured by the material interests of states operating in a multi-polar world; that is, a twenty-first century setting where many centres of power had materialised in the industrialised north of Europe and America, and the global south of developing countries.
But in principle, the man was an optimist. Convinced it was possible to blend old and new, he estimated Tonga’s cultural uniqueness was the key to putting socially inclusive policies into practice. His was a novel approach to achieving gender equality that questioned Western theory.
Because here’s the thing. What Fusitu’a asserted in a nutshell was: “It sets out pretty well my position on gender equality in a Tongan context.” That very word, context, illustrated his preferences for innovation and change.
Different to a conventional Western interpretation that there is a one-size-fits-all solution to achieving parity between women and men, Tonga’s noble MP for the Niua Islands detected that wasn’t entirely true. Gender equality, he argued, is context specific.
Every culture and country in the world has the right to define how its citizens envisage fairness between women and men ought to take place. What’s so hard about that?
Did Fusitu’a have a predecessor in Tonga’s political history whose policy on empowering women overlapped with his? The short answer was yes. The late Dr Langi Kavaliku, an educationist and cabinet minister for over thirty-years, had taken a like-minded stand in his day.
We believe there should be more positive thinking about the role of men. If there is a need for the enhancement and empowerment of women – and we believe that there is – then there is equally a need for the re-education of men. It is not just a matter of enhancement and respect for one – it must be on both sides.
Dr Langi Kavaliku
Although generations apart, Fusitu’a and Kavaliku intersected in redefining how the gender relationship worked in a Tongan cultural context. To them, the meaning of gender – women and men – did not necessarily signify two separate entities cut-off from one another.
Tongans might be socialised to see that women and men have distinct roles and responsibilities. But the function of these gender roles were compatible in serving the progress of society as a whole. The efforts of women and men therefore corresponded, representing different sides of the same coin.
And this is where the Fusitu’a theory on gender equality got really interesting. Similar to Kavaliku, he believed that men had to raise their game to meet the male responsibilities of that gender relationship.
Our parliament, which also happens to be predominantly male, must take ownership of this problem and join the efforts of all our stakeholders committed to the cause of preventing violence against women and children. By empowering our women and girls, we are building our nation.
Kavaliku used the terms enhancement and empowerment to symbolise women. Men, he thought, needed re-education to enable women to have the same opportunities to attain a quality of life and livelihood.
By comparison, Fusitu’a assigned men collective responsibility for taking ownership of violence against women and children. He avowed that empowering women and girls produced the right social fabric for nation building the Kingdom of Tonga.
These were difficult conversations for two political leaders – from different eras – to engineer with their male peers and countrymen. But they were brave enough to go there and risk public condemnation for being upfront with their socially inclusive views.
The critical question is: why would they do that when they were men, not women, and it was more convenient to keep quiet as male parliamentarians, rather than lift the lid on a contentious topic that triggered disagreement in Tonga?
On this point, Dr Langi Kavaliku gets the final word. His sentiments coincide with Fusitu’a. He trusted international development, particularly strategies for improving women’s lives, gave Tongan parliamentarians and governments alternative solutions to inform, not override, their country’s decision-making procedures. At the end of the day, gender equality came down to upholding the integrity of each and every Tongan citizen. Ain’t that the truth.
Tonga supports the proposed Programme of Action [of the United Nations International Conference on Population and Development]. We support it as a statement of problems and alternative solutions which will enable decision-makers at any level to reach more informed decisions based on their beliefs, culture and the integrity of each of their citizens.
Dr Langi Kavaliku