On Friday, the Prime Minister of Tonga, Akilisi Pohiva, contradicted a directive from the nation’s education minister, Penisimani Fifita, that stated girls would not be allowed to play rugby in order to “preserve the dignity of Tongan women and hold on to Tongan cultural values.”
The statement came courtesy of a letter to students at Tonga High School, and quickly circulated. The BBC reports that in the face of considerable backlash, Pohiva wanted to be clear that this is not actually official government policy. In fact, the government “actively encourages the participation of every Tongan student in all sports without discrimination.”
But, he added, no girls will be required to play rugby.
“It is, however, for the individual students and their parents to decide whether or not they should participate in a particular sport like rugby and boxing,” said Pohiva.
The students probably want to. Rugby is a wildly popular sport in the archipelago, and there is a high visibility for women players at the moment, according to Dateline Pacific, who spoke with local women’s rights advocate ‘Ofa Guttenbeil-Likiliki:
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.
Olympic gold medalist in shot put, Valerie Adams, whose mother is Tongan, also expressed outrage on Facebook at the Minister of Education and Training’s initial message regarding rugby in schools Monday:
Even before Pohiva came forward with a clear policy on the permissible gender for school sports, the acting CEO of the Ministry of Education Manu ‘Akau’ola told Datline Pacific that the letter notifying students of the “no girls allowed” rule was misinterpreted. Tonga has been recovering from Cyclone Gita, which devastated some areas and caused many students to miss class. Manu ‘Akau’ola says the letter stated that all students would be missing out on sporting activities in order to make up school work.
Alright, girls. Get back in the scrum.