(MENAFN - AFP) Tonga's Prime Minister Akilisi Pohiva on Friday backed away from an education department edict banning girls from rugby and boxing, saying that their participation was for families to decide.
There was outrage this week over the department's stance, which led to a team of girls from Tonga High School pulled from a touch rugby tournament because of their gender.
In a letter explaining the ban, the Pacific nation's education department said it was to "preserve the dignity of Tongan women and hold on to Tongan cultural values".
Pohiva moved to clarify his government's position after the ban generated global headlines and criticism from the likes of two-time Olympic shot put champion Valerie Adams and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
"(It) is not Tongan government policy," he said in a statement.
Pohiva said the government "actively encourages the participation of every Tongan student in all sports without discrimination".
"It is the government's responsibility to provide opportunities for all the students to participate in all sports," he said.
"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."
Adams, who was born in New Zealand but is fiercely proud of her Tongan heritage, had described the move as "misguided and stubborn misinterpretation" of Tongan culture.
"Rugby, like any sport, ought to be embraced by our Tongan women -- we're good at it -- don't take it away!" she said.