Anger at Tonga women's rugby 'ban'

Tonga women's rugby league players seen in 2013 Image copyright Tonga Women's Rugby League
Image caption Rugby League has emerged as a popular sport among women in Tonga

There's anger in rugby-mad Tonga over a government letter that apparently bans women from playing the sport in public schools.

Tonga's Ministry of Education and Training confirmed to Matangi Tonga news website that it had issued the edict, in order to "preserve the dignity of Tongan women and hold on to Tongan cultural values".

The ruling emerged after a member of Tonga High School's girls tag rugby team revealed that they had been withdrawn from a competition last week because they were girls, Matangi Tonga says.

The school's principal then confirmed that she had received "direction" from the ministry telling her to stop her female students from playing rugby. The letter also banned female boxing, Newshub reports.

Blow to women's rights

The official letter has not gone down well with sports administrators and politicians, who see it as a blow to women's rights.

Fehoko Tu'ivai, president of the Tonga Women's Rugby Association, told TV New Zealand "How can we teach our girls to be independent when we keep making choices for them?"

Speaking to Radio New Zealand, women's rights advocate 'Ofa Guttenbeil-Likiliki said that it would further reinforce the stereotype that sports are only for boys. "It is really just taking us back from all the work we have done so far in trying to achieve and bring forward gender equality in Tonga," she told the radio.

Even New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Arden has expressed her disapproval, saying "I would encourage all the young women to engage in whatever sporting code they are interested in."

Image copyright AFP
Image caption February's Cyclone Gita destroyed Tonga's Parliament House

Misunderstanding?

The Tongan authorities, however, say that the reasoning behind the letter may have been misunderstood.

Senior Education Ministry official Manu 'Akau'ola told Radio New Zealand that the edict was in response to February's Cyclone Gita, which was the worst storm to hit Tonga in 60 years.

"Our minister had directed that all government schools, because of the cyclone, are not going to be involved in any sports during this term because we have already lost enough school time," he said, adding that he would be checking to see if the contentious letter was really what the minister had intended.

Reporting by Alistair Coleman

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