By Josephine Kalsuak and Kalpana Prasad
In a world where stigma and discrimination persist, supporting individuals with diverse sexual orientations remains far from the norm. However, breaking the barriers of prejudice, the Pacific Community's (SPC) Pacific People Advancing Change (PPAC) programme, is championing inclusivity and paving the way for acceptance in the Pacific region.
Embracing the core values of equality and justice, PPAC offered small grants and advocacy capacity building to five Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) working on diverse Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Expression and Sex Characteristics (SOGIESC) in the Federated State of Micronesia (FSM), Kiribati, Palau, Tonga, and Vanuatu. The grantee organisations in these countries are tirelessly working in diverse SOGIESC and are determined to challenge societal norms that have long marginalised individuals based on their sexual orientation.
One such grantee of PPAC is the Tonga Leitis Association (TLA), an advocacy and education organisation in Tonga, is the only organisation in the country dedicated to diverse SOGIESC issues. TLA has been a PPAC grantee since 2019.
In the pursuit of a more just and inclusive society, TLA is making remarkable strides in law reform, thanks to the support of the PPAC programme. As a proud recipient of the PPAC grant, the association is dedicated to advocating for law reforms that benefit not only the diverse SOGIESC community but also the wider community in Tonga.
TLA used Tonga’s third Universal Periodic Review’s recommendations on the theme of the constitutional and legislative framework that called for the introduction of comprehensive anti-discrimination laws to provide equal protection for all people, including vulnerable groups like people with disabilities, including sexual orientation and gender identity to advocate for law reform.
With a focus on inclusive law reform, TLA aims to ensure that the rights and well-being of all community members are safeguarded. By advocating for legislative amendments that extend beyond gender-specific definitions, they strive to create a legal framework that protects every individual, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.
One significant milestone achieved by TLA through the PPAC grant is the approval by the Tongan Parliament this year for the amendment of the definition of rape in the Tonga Criminal Offences Act. Previously limited to rape cases involving a female and a male, the new definition encompasses various forms of rape such as anal and digital, ensuring more comprehensive protection for victims. While awaiting the final stage of endorsement by His Majesty the King, as required by Tongan law, TLA eagerly anticipates the royal ascent, in the hopes that the amendment will soon be in effect.
Manase Vaoahi, Financial Manager of TLA emphasised the principle of equality underpinning their efforts: "We believe the law should be equal for everyone, and no one should be above the law or discriminated against as part of the law."
Presently, TLA’s primary focus lies on ensuring the amendments to certain passages of the Tonga Criminal Offences Act to ensure inclusion. Foremost among these is the rape section, which is undergoing significant changes to incorporate various forms of sexual assault.
“To date, we are glad to report that out of the 7 proposed amendments by TLA, the parliament have approved amendment to Section 118, Rape, of the Tonga Criminal Offences Act. The definition of rape is now expanded to include other forms of rape such as anal and digital rape,” highlighted Vaoahi.
“By expanding the definition of rape to encompass a broader range of offences, the Tonga Leitis Association can ensure that all survivors receive the protection and justice they deserve,” he said.
Vaoahi says the amendment to the definition of rape in the Tongan Criminal Offences Act is just the first step for the organisation and TLA has plans to address other gaps within the criminal offences act.
He underscores TLA’s commitment to progress, stating, "This is just the beginning for us; there are other gaps in the Criminal Offenses Act that we want to reform, and with more support, we hope to move forward with this."
“From TLA’s experience, legal reform is no doubt a lengthy process, but we still have more work to do. We have the remaining proposed amendments to push forward to the Attorney General’s Office for consideration and simply influencing key ministries to support our cause,” he shared.
By advocating for comprehensive legal changes to the Act, the Tonga Leitis Association aims to lay the groundwork for a society where every individual's rights are respected, upheld, and safeguarded.
Supported by the PPAC programme, TLA’s transformative efforts in law reform exemplify their unwavering dedication to inclusivity and equality. As they continue to drive change, their initiatives set a powerful precedent for other organisations and communities in the Pacific region, signalling the possibility of a future where justice knows no bounds and discrimination has no place.
Empowering Civil Society Organisations to Promote Inclusivity and Embrace Diversity
The PPAC programme acts as a beacon of hope, fostering a more inclusive and understanding society by empowering CSOs to become catalysts for social change. PPAC is provided with funding and support from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) through its Promoting Just, Engaged, Civic Minded and Transparent Governance programme, the European Union through the UN Women Spotlight Initiative and through the Governments of Australia and Sweden.
By providing LGBTQI+ CSOs with the necessary resources, the programme enables these organisations to raise awareness, drive policy reform, and create safe spaces for individuals identifying as sexual and gender minorities.
Through the distribution of small grants, PPAC is helping these CSOs fuel their initiatives, whether it be conducting workshops, organising awareness campaigns, meeting with government representatives, or developing educational materials. These endeavours are instrumental in dismantling stereotypes and educating communities about the importance of embracing diversity.
In FSM, PPAC has supported IAM, a newly established organisation in Pohnpei state. IAM organises pride and diversity show to create a safe space for the LGBTQI+ community to express their gender identities to gain support from members of the community and other partners while promoting economic empowerment opportunities for its members.
The Boutokaan Inaomataia ao Mauriia Binabinaine Association (BIMBA) in Tarawa, Kiribati, is actively combating stigma and discrimination through peer education and awareness. They focus on promoting understanding and respect for the rights of individuals with diverse sexual orientations, gender identities and sex characteristics, ultimately fostering stronger stakeholder support for BIMBA's initiatives.
Meanwhile, in Palau, PPAC’s grantee: Living Inclusive in Belau focuses on creating a referral pathway for the SOGIESC members to report sexual and gender-based violence issues affecting them.
In Vanuatu, another grantee V-Pride is working with the Vanuatu National Disaster Management Office to endorse a partnership agreement that will promote the active participation of diverse SOGIESC members in emergency response clusters during natural disasters.
The TLA’s successful law reform is an example of how SPC empowers CSOs to use international human rights and gender instruments to advance human rights and gender equity situations at the national level.
PPAC with the support of its donor partners is working collectively with its grantees to challenge societal norms and advocating for a future where every individual is celebrated, irrespective of their sexual orientation and gender identity. By working together and supporting one another, they are paving the way for a more inclusive Pacific region, where diversity is not only embraced but also celebrated.