Tuvalu News

BBC News
Tuesday, 14 March, 2000, 10:52 GMT

Tuvalu Unlocks Dormitories after Fire

The Prime Minister of Tuvalu, Ionatana Ionatana, says orders have been given for girls' school dormitories to remain unlocked at night, after a fire left 18 pupils and a matron dead.

The girls, aged between 14 and 17, died as they struggled in vain to escape from the burning building.

Mr Ionatana said the dormitories on the remote South Pacific islands would still be protected, but by locked fences from now on.

Boys

He explained that the policy of locking the doors had been standard practice to protect the girls from boys.

"We have the girls locked in and in each dormitory there is supposed to be a matron. The matron locks the door and locks everything to ensure that the boys are kept out from the girls," Mr Ionatana said.

Asked if it was necessary to protect girls this way he replied: "Yes, from young men and young boys going after young women and girls so normally we lock in the girls."

He added that boys were not normally locked in their dormitory.

'Discrimination'

The Fiji Women's Crisis Centre condemned what it said was a widespread policy throughout the South Pacific.

"Some boarding schools, through their puritanical and out-dated ideas of female chastity, lock girls up so they do not get up to mischief," the Centre said.

"It is utterly shameful and condemnatory of this world that in this day and age we have to lock up young girls ... not only because of the constant threat of violence but because of society's blatant discrimination with regard to adolescent sexuality."

Mr Ionatana said the fire had been started by a candle, but 14 of the dead girls, who were found in a pile by one of the doors, appeared to have been electrocuted.

Escape

He said one of the survivors had re-entered the dormitory in a failed attempt to rescue her friend, who was dying from the electric current.

In total 18 girls escaped after a nightwatchman kicked down the dormitory's second door.

The tragedy took place at Motufoua Secondary School, Tuvalu's largest high school, on the island of Vaitupu, north of the main atoll of Funifuti.

The Tuvalu government has launched an investigation.

International attention was focused on the island nation last month amid concerns that global warming and sea-level rises could swamp the islands - one of the lowest-lying nations in the world.

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