Ongoing Debate in Tonga Over CEDAW Ratification Reflects U.S. Challenges on a Smaller Scale

Recently, the small Polynesian island state of Tonga (officially known as the Kingdom of Tonga) has attempted to recharge an internal process toward ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Earlier this year, the Tongan government had announced that it planned to move forward with steps toward official ratification. The U.N. Human Rights Office in the Pacific began working with the Tongan government to help them move toward ratifying the convention, while NGOs and other groups inside the country have come forward and supported the movement.

Not long after, however, opposition groups such as the Tonga Catholic Women’s League began protesting against ratification. On May 22, these groups handed a 15,000-signature petition to the Tongan palace, requesting that the Tongan king, King Tupou VI, stop the government from ratifying the convention. Opponents have expressed concern over ratification of the convention, arguing that it will force same sex marriage and abortion upon the country.


Source: Radio New Zealand International,

Vanessa Heleta from the Talitha Development Project says that this is a “misconception” and people are being “brainwashed” against the treaty:

“I feel very sad and I feel that it is a waste of time because there are so many other issues we can address but it is drowned by this wrong misconception.”

This debate is notable not only because Tonga remains one of the few countries of the world—alongside the United States—which has yet to ratify CEDAW, but because it also mirrors a similar debate about ratification and the challenges faced by CEDAW supporters in the United States. And despite that fact that Tonga is only a small island nation (of about 750 square kilometers spread out over 177 islands) located in the Pacific Ocean, groups that oppose CEDAW have launched as fervent a campaign there as they have in the United States. Here in the United States, for example, U.S. church and conservative groups making similar claims against ratification based on misconceptions that it will impose “anti-family values” on Americans and that CEDAW would “deny American women freedom.”

(Of course, one unique implication that CEDAW ratification may have in Tonga and not in the United States includes potential changes to Tonga’s land laws based on implementation of CEDAW’s principles of equality and nondiscrimination. Currently, the laws give every male over the age of 16 entitlement to a plot of land, whereas women are allowed to lease land but cannot inherit or mortgage hereditary lands unless no male heir exists, according to Television New Zealand Limited. After CEDAW ratification, it is likely that the government would be required to change these laws to allow women the same inheritance rights in order to comply with its subsequent treaty obligations.)

The debate has been growing increasingly volatile. It has been reported that this tension over ratification “has been brewing for months,” and that “earlier this year at a CEDAW roundtable discussion involving community groups one church minister was reported by Matangi Tonga online as shouting at the group ‘You women should know your place.’”

Yet a local women’s advocate, Ofa Guttenbeil-Likiliki, has noted that despite the opposition, there are plenty of people who do support the empowerment of women—and 13 NGOs in particular have come together under the broader Civil Society Forum. As Ms. Guttenbeil-Likiliki stated to Radio New Zealand,

“More strategically we are coming together as heads of organisations that work on the ground, that work with vulnerable groups, that work with women who are not your average privileged Tongan women who have access to all her social, economic, political and cultural rights. We work for the women who have no say, who are voiceless.”

Prime Minister Akilisi Pohiva has told Radio Tonga there is may be a referendum on the issue, if Tonga can pass legislation allowing for such a referendum. Hopefully—either at the end of the debate or via referendum—the voices of women indeed will prevail and that Tongan government will finally be able to proceed with its plans for CEDAW ratification.

For more information on the Kingdom of Tonga, visit:

For more on Tonga’s land laws, read Kersti Harter Kennedy, Why Land Tenure Reform is the Key to Political Stability in Tonga, available at:

Or visit:

For more on the CEDAW debate in Tonga, visit:

For an example of some of the arguments made by American groups against CEDAW ratification, visit:

For a list of reasons as to why the U.S. should ratify CEDAW, visit: