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The Contemporary Pacific 14.1 (2002) 134-147

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Women of the New Millennium:
Tongan Women Determine Their Development Direction

Clare Bleakley

EDITOR'S NOTE: This paper is being published posthumously. The editorial board feels it is fitting testimony to the work of Clare Bleakley, whose life was cut short in a plane crash in Fiji in July 1999. A shorter version of this paper was presented at the Tongan History Association Conference, 1 July 1999, in Nuku'alofa. The paper was later submitted to the journal by Kerry James, who also took responsibility for overseeing a process of updating and editing that included substantial contributions from Heather Young Leslie, a reviewer for the journal who generously completed the revisions and added information on a women's land rights petition brought to the parliament by Kalisi Taumoefolau and others in 1930. Young Leslie was well placed to act as a "silent coauthor" on this piece, having discussed a potential collaboration on this very subject with Clare Bleakley shortly before her death. In addition, Caroline Tupoulahi Fusimalohi, Deputy Director of the Central Planning Department in Tonga, provided further details regarding gender guidelines for government planning.

In the late 1980 s and early 1990 s, when gender arose as an issue in the context of development in Tonga, it tended to be dismissed in the belief that it "misconstrued Tongan culture," or that it was only, "a projection of western feminists." The high traditional and ceremonial status of women served to obscure gender as a key issue. The assumption was that the privileged status of sisters in Tongan family structures would ensure overall gender equality when combined with equal pay for equal work. However, this assumption overlooked basic imbalances in the division of labor and the distribution of authority and failed to recognize a series of relevant issues that ranged from domestic violence to the disproportionate representation of males in the civil service, politics, and senior executive positions in the private and public sectors. It also neglected the fact of women's lack of access to land rights, which Tongan women share with [End Page 134] many other Pacific Island women (Moengangongo 1986). More recent moves by some women toward gender empowerment attempt to meet these practical and strategic development needs. This paper provides a description of the activities of two local women's nongovernment organizations, the Women-in-Law Association (WILA) and 'Aloua Ma'a Tonga, which show the increasing awareness of gender as a critical component of social interaction and power relations in Tonga. They also indicate the effect that women's initiatives are having on women and on the nation as a whole as Tonga enters the new millennium.

The fact of "femaleness" alone cannot predict Tongan women's focus or their ability to contribute to the development process. As Alloo and Harcourt have pointed out, there is no necessary commonality among women's voices, nor do women always form a homogenous group or have a "feminine focus" simply because they are women of the one nationality (1997, 9). Instead, their skills, interests, goals and priorities, modes of operating and thinking, ways of strategizing, and global outlooks may well differ. This is as true of Tongan women as women elsewhere. Indeed, the differences provided by rank, kinship relationships, social status, level of education, access to resources, and the nature of their life experiences suggest that they will have a wide diversity of responses to development opportunities. For example, the idea that women experience universal subordination regardless of class differentials has been widely disseminated in feminist and development literature. However, rank and kinship relations in Tonga advantage sets of women differently, in ways that have implications both for development policy and its implementation.

Tongan society is strongly rank-conscious. Within the social hierarchy, no two members of a kainga (extended family) share the same rank (Kaeppler 1971; Bott 1981). Descent through a sister or through a brother of a sibling pair, for example, is particularly important in determining social rank and interpersonal behavior within the extended family. Thus, issues...


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