It was the 2nd of November, 2018 in the Kingdom of Tonga and on that day, we made history. That morning, I had quite a weird feeling. Being part of something this phenomenal, you would think that it would be nerve wrecking but I had felt quite the opposite, I was calm in spite of the short notice of being accepted as part of the Girls Takeover Parliament initiative by Tonga Youth Leaders.
As I was putting on my Puletaha, I had a mini “proud Tonga woman” moment with my reflection and even more so when my mother wrapped my ta’ovala around my waist. Sometimes some of us girls or women take for granted the fact that we are Tongan and the social prestige that comes with it. There is something different about Tongan women and I think we should all have the chance to embrace that social prestige in every aspect of society but especially in the political arena. I put on my blazer, hopped in the vehicle and a few minutes later I entered the Falealea ‘o Tonga gates. I saw girls in uniform and some dressed similarly to the way I was and I started to get excited. I mean, there we were, young women, about to disrupt and takeover the House of Parliament, about to sit in the seats of Ministers and Representatives and step in their shoes for a day and if that doesn’t spark excitement in you, I don’t know what would.
Call it divine authority or coincidence but I knew this day would come. My interest in gender issues, especially in the political participation of women, started when I learnt about the gender gap in different decision-making positions and institutions across the globe and especially in patriarchal societies such as our own. In search of ways to narrow the gap, I developed the belief that the answer lies in policy, laws and its institutions and the involvement and participation of all minority groups in those areas, including women. I think it’s very important that women of all ages but especially young women, are educated on the importance of their participation in decision-making processes. We bring to the table not only different experiences to men but also a certain level of emotion that only we can understand in other women and only we are able to fully understand what women need.
That day we were given two topics to debate about on the agenda: single-use plastic including ways to make sure that they are disposed of properly and cyberbullying: a safer digital world for girls. I went in that day with the intention of using that platform to bring up the issue of political participation of women in Tonga and propose a way that I believed would be the helpful to us as a country in helping our system be more representative.
I saw my chance in our last session of the day before our mock parliament began where the Speaker of Parliament, Lord Fakafanua, shared his experience as a youth in politics and parliament. He also shared his beliefs about the involvement of women and youth and then it got more interesting. I disagreed with the Speaker over Temporary Special Measures in the form of reserved seats (electoral gender quotas) in Parliament for women. He believed that the law was already providing a level playing field for men and women to compete for seats in Parliament. I wanted to let the girls know at this point that there is a difference between POLITICAL EQUALITY and POLITICAL EQUITY. Yes, the law provides the same opportunities for men and women and we have access to the same resources and everything we need to compete for available seats; this is political equality. But I believe, as I stated, that what we also need, is less obstacles. Tongan women, although prestigious in some aspects of our social life, are often disadvantaged in other areas, political especially. Reserved seats can fast-track our participation, reserved seats can overcome these obstacles and this is what I believe to be political equity. I brought this up because I believe that young women should understand it and be able to tell the difference. I also wanted to make known that the concept of reserved seats was not a new one. The seats for nobles are “reserved” for them. Although it is in a completely different context as in it is culturally and traditionally relevant but the concept itself, “reserved seats” shouldn’t be treated as a new one because it already exists in the house. And although the situation may seem oversimplified, I believe that with a bit of understanding and flexibility, it would be understood from my perspective.
When I delivered my argument, in the Falealea ‘o Tonga, in the presence of the Speaker of the House, and in the midst of my fellow young women, it felt amazing. No, amazing is such an understatement to the way I felt. My dream was materializing right in front of me and for me, it felt like an overshadowing for the future. It did not matter anymore that I was a small being in a big room surrounded by leaders of our country, I wanted myself and the young girls to understand that no matter how intimidating or how prestigious the people are of an audience, deliver what you intend to deliver in a firm but respectable manner. Stand by your beliefs and never sway because the opinion of someone higher than you think otherwise. However, always be willing to compromise for the greater good of your community, after all, as a Parliamentarian, what you are, is a servant, for the people you represent.
I will not be forgetting that day any time soon and mixed emotions that came with it. Networks were created, ideas and different mindsets were showcased and friends were made that day. The Girls Takeover Parliament was a success, both on a national and a personal scale.