Wonder Girls: Supi is Fighting for CEDAW in Tonga

Wonder Girls: Changing Our World is the first book to document the passionate and peaceful activism of girl-led groups from around the world—which are improving health, education, gender equality and the environment and stopping child marriage, domestic violence, child trafficking and war. The Ms. blog is running girls’ stories from the book all this week long in honor of International Day of the Girl. You can read them all here.

Supi Halafihi, 15, Tonga

“We were just doing a traditional dance rehearsal for the coronation. It’s called a lakalaka.” What Supi doesn’t say is that in 2003 UNESCO named the lakalaka as a “masterpiece of oral and intangible heritage of humanity.”

Lakalaka chronicles the history and traditions of the Tongan people, and celebrates the fact that, unlike all other Pacific Islands, Tonga has never been colonized. These performances of poetry, music, and movement may last 40 minutes and feature 100 people or more, all wearing traditional costumes.

Supi continues, “In Tongan tradition, boys and girls were not supposed to dance together. Somehow, as time went on, that changed. We are going to dance together at the coronation.” Next, Supi talks about a practice that no one else has discussed in any country I have visited: some families in Tonga rent their teenaged daughters out for sexual relationships.

“My friend’s parents want this guy for her, and are trying to pressure her into it. She’s underage. Probably this rich guy will give them money. She’s a pretty girl.”

I ask, “The parents want her to marry him?”

“No, just have a relationship with him. It happens in Tonga. I told my friend, ‘It’s not hard to say no, even though you’re afraid to.’ She has talked it out with her parents.” I try to reconcile this practice with what I know about Tonga as a profoundly Christian country with a tradition of celebrating virgins whose skin doesn’t absorb oil.

Our conversation turns to Supi’s concern about domestic violence. “One of my friends was violated by her father. When I went to Talitha’s camp, I learned what to do to help her. My friend always thought of herself as nothing. She and I talked about how important women are to society and the family. I explained to her that life is a gift from God, especially for us women. I told her I believed in myself and making change so she could use me. I helped her say ‘No!’ That’s especially important for women in this culture.”

Thinking about Supi’s friend whose father raped her, I ask, “Do children respect parents to the point of doing anything they ask?”

Supi says, “Yes, it’s a must. That’s the culture. You have no choice. After I talked to my friend, I kept on calling her. She had to stand up to her father. I think I helped her a lot.”

Supi is passionate about getting Tonga to ratify CEDAW. She tells me how she advocated for it at Tonga High School, which she attends. “Every Friday morning we have religious instruction. A pastor from the Assembly of God came to preach to us. Instead of preaching, he said, ‘If you believe CEDAW is a good thing, raise your hand. I know that none of us here believe in CEDAW or want to accept it.’ Everyone was shocked when I put my hand up. He was looking away and everyone was giving me the evil eye. In our school, you’re not supposed to go talk to the person, but he couldn’t hear me. So I walked to the front. I wanted to share to the whole school, so I picked up the microphone and said, ‘I don’t believe CEDAW is that bad. Have you read it?’ ‘No.’ ‘So you’re judging the book by its cover?’ ‘I am not judging.’ ‘You are. You don’t know it but you are judging it.’

“He was enraged. He said I am a naughty, bad girl talking to him in that tone. He said, ‘Why do you believe in CEDAW?’ I said, ‘Only 5 percent of CEDAW runs against our religion; 95 percent would be good for us women.’ He said, ‘Women do not matter.’

“I’m like, ‘You’re saying women do not matter? We are all created by God. If there were no women, the role of the men would not be complete. Women were brought to the world to support men. I believe women can also be leaders.” “He slammed the blackboard and said, ‘Men were brought to be leaders, not women.’ He kept on repeating that. “I said, ‘So it’s time for us to make a change. Why do you think women can’t lead?’ ‘Because of our culture.’

“I said, ‘You are preaching the word of God but you’re saying it’s the culture? Which side do you take? You have to make it clear.’ He hated it so much when I was saying the truth. I was not scared to talk to him in that way.”

Then Supi introduced property rights into the discussion. CEDAW guarantees women equal rights to own land. Tongan women can only lease land and, when couples get divorced, husbands keep the family property. “I told him, ‘It is mentioned in the bible that women should inherit land, not just men. You’re preaching the word of God. Do you know what you’re saying?’ And I said, ‘If you had the light, you wouldn’t be that angry. Everyone has a right to their own opinion or view. I am just saying mine.’

“He said, ‘You have no right to say that to me.’ “I said, ‘As far as I know, everybody has that right.’ He was so mad he ended the session. Everybody was just silent. In Tongan tradition, it’s not good to go against someone. But he asked! I don’t see that I did a bad thing. I was just showing what I believe.”

Between 2013-2016, noted author and photographer Paola Gianturco and her 11-year-old granddaughter, up-and-coming author and photographer Alex Sangster, teamed up to interview and photograph 102 girls, each of whom tells her own story in her own words in Wonder Girls: Changing Our World. One hundred percent of the authors’ royalties from Wonder Girls go to The Global Fund for Women to benefit grassroots groups of activist girls and women around the world.

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