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Tongan prime minister overrides 'girls' 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

Tonga's prime minister has reversed a ministry decision that appeared to ban girls from playing rugby in schools.

There was outrage in the Pacific nation this week after a girls' high school rugby team was withdrawn from a competition because of their gender.

An official letter said that sports such as rugby and boxing went against Tongan women's dignity and culture.

Prime Minister Akilisi Pohiva responded by saying that the letter did not represent official government policy.

He said that the government "actively encourages the participation of every Tongan student in all sports without discrimination".

"It is, however, for the individual students and their parents to decide whether or not they should participate in a particular sport like rugby and boxing," the prime minister added.

'Tongan cultural values'

Earlier in the week, the Ministry of Education and Training said it had taken the decision in order to "preserve the dignity of Tongan women and hold on to Tongan cultural values".

The decision was widely criticised, including by Fehoko Tu'ivai, president of the Tonga Women's Rugby Association.

"How can we teach our girls to be independent when we keep making choices for them?" she asked, quoted by TV New Zealand.

But an Education Ministry official told Radio New Zealand that the decision may have been misunderstood, and that sport was being temporarily suspended in government schools after a devastating cyclone in February.

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