Tonga's first woman Government Minister - also Attorney-General


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17 May 2006

Politics: TONGANS PROTECTED UNDER THE LAW
New Justice Minister assures the kingdom


When Tonga's first woman government minister Malia Viviena 'Alisi Nunia Taumoepeau was asked of her mentor, her eyes well with tears. If only her father were alive to share this historical moment.

 Legal brains...New Minister for Justice and Attorney-General Viviena Alisi Nunia Taumoepeau (right) and husband Aisea, who is also a former Justice Minister and Attorney- General.

PHOTO: Legal brains...New Minister for Justice and Attorney-General Viviena Alisi Nunia Taumoepeau (right) and husband Aisea, who is also a former Justice Minister and Attorney- General.

On May 17, in the presence of the Queen's sister Latuniua Taumoepeau-Tupou and Lord Chamberlain, Noble Fielakepa, she was officially appointed Minister of Justice and Attorney-General. The announcement was made the night before on television and on radio by Tonga's Prime Minister, Dr Feleti Sevele. More than 30 years ago, Taumoepeau applied for a New Zealand scholarship. Her interests were in math and medicine. Her father, Pousima 'Afeaki, who died in 1987, pushed her to pursue law. Taumoepeau applied hoping the committee would see her math and science grades and grant her a scholarship in kind. It didn't happen.

'He probably saw something in me that I didn't see in myself. All that I really wanted to do was to complete this degree. It was something I did for my father.'

She returned to Tonga as the first woman with a law degree and the dream to make a difference. Through it all, Taumoepeau became passionate about the rule of law, a passion that has seen her excel in her role at the Crown Law Office over the years. It's also a passion that has landed her in trouble with the government. Last year, Taumoepeau, was one of the first in her ranks to speak out at the six-week strike where civil servants demanded for better wages. She was later pressured by the former Prime Minister, Prince 'Ulukalala Lavaka Ata, to resign but she fought for justice.

Two years ago, her husband, 'Aisea, who was then Minister for Justice and Attorney-General, was told to resign. She was at the time Solicitor-General. 'It was very difficult for our family to adjust. The shock, the anguish. But we made a decision to pick up the pieces and just move on.'

Needless to say, her appointment was a shock. When asked about her family's reaction, she took her time to respond choosing her words carefully: 'We were happy that government in its own way was acknowledging that the legal side was important if not crucial at this time. We put those things behind us and try to move on and better this country'constitutionally and legally.'

As minister for justice, Taumoepeau will ensure the law is followed by the government. 'Whether that's a change, I think that's one of the important things I wish to actually see to. Then there are the amendments to the Constitution that need time and consultation to ensure the people understand where it's going.

'With these changes, is the dilemma between law and culture that reflect the core values of its people. Often, there is a tendency to neglect culture and support legal issues.

'We have to ensure our identity, our core values as a people are intact. I think that when we break it down to core values, I think it would be easier to agree on what is important to us as a people.' Other issues for government to address are about the global push for the Commonwealth countries to ratify the Convention on Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, better known as CEDAW. Taumoepeau supports CEDAW, but says the convention is tailored more for African and Melanesian countries where women are of a different status to Tongan women. Traditionally, Tongan women are of higher status their menfolk. In Tonga, women can lease land for 99 years. This land can be leased from their fathers and re-leased or sold. Should anything happen to the landowner, the heir is still bound by the lease. Men who inherit land are bound by law to leave their land to their heirs or if they're childless to their nephews.

'So its really educating women about their rights under our Land Act, because when people make that assumption that our Land Act is like countries like New Zealand and Australia, it's not right. Our Land Act is special and we can use it to the advantage of women.'

Taumoepeau sees the CEDAW issue as one where Tongan women need to go back to core values that are linked to the family where the eldest takes responsibility. 'Is that what we want to lose? Are those core values we want to do away with? Do we want the women to have the cultural dignity they have now, or are we asking them to take over the role of providing for the rest of the families?'

On a global scale, Tongans, Taumoepeau says, are recognised for their achievements in different fields. But instead of focusing on things that make us, we tend to focus on power, money and economic issues, she said. 'The core values that make us as a people have to take top priority. So our children in the future can still inherit that drive, that power that is still linked to our core values. That's one of the things I'm passionate about in change. That we know what our core values are and merge them with our knowledge, our power [and] politics.'

Taumoepeau's appointment was welcomed by many. The people remembered how she supported them during the strike. I cannot sit in my seat of privilege at the Crown Law Office when there are things we need to support. Whether you are a commoner or a noble, we are all protected under the law, she said.

[Island Business (May 2006) - Taina Kami Enoka]

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