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NUKUALOFA, Tonga (Matangi Tonga, September 1) – The Tongan government is not about to give women land rights but they are looking at how to give women the right to register the land of the husband, the Prime Minister Hon. Dr Feleti Sevele told parliamentarians in Nuku'alofa yesterday.

In Tonga current land rights are male specific and only pass down to male heirs. Women may lease land, and a woman may also have an interest in her husband's land but the land laws regulate the woman's sexuality.

The Prime Minister argued, however, that Tonga's land laws were not discriminatory against women, but merely "an anomaly," in his opening address to the Tonga Members of Parliament Consultation on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

"Tonga has tried to assist women to find not land rights but access to land rights without destroying our traditional system," he said. "Two weeks ago there was a policy directive for the Ministry of Lands to consider and submit to cabinet how to give women the right to register the land of the husband," Dr Sevele said. "This has been a concern for many people".

Government wanted to address the, "anomaly, not a discrimination in our land system, and this is a step forward," he said, and he expected parliament to deal with the land issue this year.

At the consultative workshop held at the Janfull International Dateline Hotel, Tonga's law-makers compared the legislation of Tonga and the requirements of CEDAW. The Cabinet this year approved in principal that Tonga will ratify the convention, and the Prime Minister yesterday indicated that this might be as soon as the end of the year. While Tonga was already line with many of the human rights requirements of CEDAW, "there are reservations relating to land rights and nationality."

Dr Sevele said that CEDAW's first aim was to ensure there was equality between men and women in the legal system, and since 1875 there had been legal equality of all Tongans before the law, "and this is something we should all be proud of." The issues of land laws and inheritance, were one of the main concerns of CEDAW worldwide.

Tonga's Nationality Act and Dual Citizenship amendment would also come to parliament, he said, "A reflection of what government sees are important issues for Tonga."

In his opening address the Prime Minister also reaffirmed his commitment to the traditional ideology that, "in everyday life most Tongans do accept that the head of the household is the man". He added that historically the land laws were formed in the 1875 Constitution, "when land was plentiful and the breadwinner was clearly the man."

The Tonga consulation was facilitated by the Pacific Regional Rights Resource Team (RRRT) in collaboration with the Langafonua National Council of Women, the Catholic Women's League and the Civil Society Forum of Tonga.

They stated that the Tongan government can ratify CEDAW and then work towards bringing certain aspects of its legislation into line with the goals of the convention.

The women's groups noted that while Tonga's law does in a number of areas already comply with CEDAW there are areas where the current legislation is discriminatory, and these are in Land Rights, and Nationality Rights. The land rights are male specific, and the nationality of Tongan women cannot be passed to their husbands or children.

Other areas where gaps in legislation caused concern were employment rights, with the absence of protection in the private sector and maternity health was not legislated for. Improvements were also needed to ensure the security of women in domestic violence and sexual assault, and also in laws to remove the difficulty associated with fault based divorce as well as the division of marital property.

CEDAW is a United Nations agreement on women's rights and promotes equality between men and women. Under the convention, discrimination against women includes any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex that may impair or deny women's enjoyment of their human rights on an equal basis with men.

The convention outlines the most critical areas in which government action is most needed to end discrimination against women in all aspects of life. The rights and freedoms in CEDAW come from the International Bill of Rights.

The Catholic Women's League explained that when countries ratify CEDAW, then as a party to it they are obliged to give women in their countries the same opportunities as men, especially where culture would tend to keep them unequal.

They stressed that CEDAW will not take away Tongan men's rights, but instead, "the convention creates a level playing field by putting women on the same level as men." There were many reasons why Tonga should ratify CEDAW, because everyone benefits. "The fact that Tonga has not ratified CEDAW, which signals a commitment to gender equality, is an anomaly considering Tonga's high regard for women socially."

Tonga, the Marshall Islands, Nauru and Palau and the US Trust territories are the only independent countries in the Pacific that had not yet ratified CEDAW.

Attending the Tonga consultations were most of the People's Representatives, with the exception of 'Uliti Uata and Clive Edwards, but only two of the Nobles Representatives, Nobles Tu'ivakano, and Noble Tu'iha'ateiho attended. Ministers taking part included the Prime Minister and the Ministers of Law, Health, Education Women's Affairs and Culture, Youth and Sport, and Tourism.

September 4, 2006

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