‘Female economic empowerment in Tonga has a long way to go’
As the 11th Triennial Conference of Pacific Women enters day two in
Noumea, New Caledonia this week, economic empowerment of women came
under the microscope.
This morning during the Economic Empowerment of Women Plenary,
Auckland University’s Dr. Yvonne Underhill-Sem made a plea for the
economic empowerment of women in the Pacific through promoting their
access to the variety of resources they need in order to balance their
work and family lives in ways that promote their own sense of
wellbeing and dignity.
Applying this to the Tongan situation, the Director of the Women and
Children Crisis Centre Ofa-Ki-Levuka Guttenbeil-Likiliki points to
land rights as the most obvious barrier to women being able to achieve
economic empowerment in the Kingdom.
“The government is reluctant to change land ownership laws and upset
the status quo which was clearly communicated in Government’s refusal
to ratify the UN Convention on the Elimination of all forms of
Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 2009. Because of this huge
obstacle, and it is huge, so many women are held back from economic
opportunities – for example business bank loans requiring land as
collateral” said Guttenbeil-Likiliki.
Currently women in Tonga are only able to lease land but they are unable to own
land. Inheritance to land title passes through male heirs.
“Women who are currently accessing land in Tonga are most likely using
land that is owned by male family members (husbands, brothers,
grandfathers). The female business owners that we do see in Tonga have
had to be incredibly resourceful because they simply do not get the
same rights when they are born as women” said Guttenbeil-Likiliki.
Based on the 2006 Tonga Census, the number of women employed in
agriculture, fisheries and quarrying was only 417, compared to that of
men being 9,486. “This clearly shows that women hardly engage in paid
work in agriculture and that they are primarily involved in household
food production and informal employment channels” said
In the informal sector, particular kinds of handicrafts are in high
demand by expatriates and urban Tongan women and so in rural areas
where males have few opportunities to access paid employment – the
financial stability of the family depends on these handicrafts.
“This trend of women working in informal channels makes them
particularly vulnerable – their rights as workers are not protected in
any formal legal sense, and many of these women do not have any
control over the money they earn from the selling of the handicraft –
and here at the crisis centre we see incidents of violence connected
to these financial power struggles between husband and wife as a
result" said Guttenbeil-Likiliki.
The Japan International Cooperation Agency 2010 Country Gender Profile
showed that over the past 30 years, the number of females in formal
employment has increased almost fourfold. However there has been
little change to the type of occupations that women are engaged in.
“The majority of women are still employed in unskilled menial work or
subordinate positions with very low pay. The public sector is a
perfect example - although women occupy account for 30% of employment
in the public sector very, very few are in decision making positions”
The same report highlights that there is no formal or official system
that provides support for female workers apart from the maternity
leave provision for public servants, which is not mirrored in the
Current economic employment schemes in the Pacific, such as the
seasonal employment scheme, have also been focused on male employment.
“Most often Tongan women are told that the conditions in the fruit
farms, such as accommodation, are not appropriate to occupy Tongan
women. I think it would be safe to say that more than 80% of Tongans
who have had access to the seasonal employment scheme have been men.”
Guttenbeil-Likiliki suggests that Tonga has a long way to go if it is
to even meet the minimum standards of the Beijing Platform for Action
and the economic empowerment of women being discussed at the 11th
Triennial Conference of Pacific Women. She links economic development
with the quality of life for women.
“In a nutshell – women’s job opportunities are limited because of the
cultural patriarchal attitudes, values and belief systems that Tongan
male and females have about gender roles. The long term implications
of these limited opportunities are that we will continue to view women
as inferior to men in Tongan society – and as a result we will
continue to see high incidences of violence against women.”
Statistics from the Crisis Centre have shown that a link exists
between financial empowerment and violence against women. “Clients
with little access to financial stability – such as the complete
dependency on their husbands for land – means that it is very
difficult for a woman to have independence. In turn, this means she is
even less likely to leave a violent situation. Statistically, finances
are also one of the biggest reasons that clients site as a reason for
conflict in families. Economic empowerment for women is essential if
we are to eliminate violence against women” said Guttenbeil-Likiliki,
“Economic empowerment for Tongan women? We still have a long way to go”