Tonga flag

Diversity and Inclusion

The Peace Corps seeks to reflect the rich diversity of the U.S. and bring diverse perspectives and solutions to development issues in the countries we serve. For the Peace Corps, diversity is a collection of individual attributes that together help the agency pursue organizational objectives efficiently and effectively. These include national origin, language, race, color, disability, ethnicity, gender, age, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, socioeconomic status, veteran status, and family structures. Diversity also encompasses where people are from, where they have lived, and their differences of thought and life experiences.

We also seek to create inclusion—a culture that connects each staff and Volunteers to the organization; encourages collaboration, flexibility, and fairness; and leverages diversity throughout the organization so that all individuals are able to participate and contribute to their full potential—throughout the Volunteer and staff lifecycle.

Diversity and Inclusion at Your Site

Once Volunteers arrive at their sites, diversity and inclusion principles remain the same but take on a different shape, in which your host community may share a common culture and you—the Volunteer—are the outsider. You may be in the minority, if not the sole American like you, at your site. You will begin to notice diversity in perspectives, ethnicity, age, depth of conversation, and degree of support you may receive—and may need to make adjustments. During pre-service training, a session will be held to discuss diversity and inclusion and how you can transcend differences, find common ground, and serve as an ally for your peers.

Cross-Cultural Considerations

The Peace Corps emphasizes professional behavior and cross-cultural sensitivity among Volunteers and within their communities to help integration and achieve successful service. As a Volunteer and representative of the United States, you are responsible both for sharing the diversity of U.S. culture (yours and other Americans’) with your host country national counterparts, and also for learning from your host country’s diversity. 

To ease the transition to life in your host country, you may need to make some temporary, yet fundamental, compromises in how you present yourself as an American and as an individual, and will need to develop techniques and personal strategies for coping with these limitations. During pre-service training, staff will provide training on how to adapt personal choices and behavior to be respectful of the host country culture, and will be available for ongoing support. 

What Might a Volunteer Face?

Gender Roles

It will be important to absorb and to attempt to understand the cultural nuances of gender roles in your host country. During pre-service training, you will receive an introduction to gender awareness in-country, and will take time to examine your own thinking about gender roles and how they have impacted you. You’ll then learn to analyze development projects using a gender lens to better understand gender roles in your host country and how these gender roles can benefit or limit what females and males may or may not do—both from a personal standpoint and in relation to work and relationships in-country.

Tonga has a traditional, patriarchal culture. Although women have achieved high rank in government ministries, people at the community level have not had much experience with women who take on professional roles or who live independently from their families. Most women in Tonga do very little on their own and generally travel, even if it is just to the corner shop to buy flour, with at least one other person. This does not mean female Volunteers cannot live or do things on their own, but they need to be aware that the community where they live may view their behavior as strange. Many Tongans have large, robust figures, which are considered desirable in traditional Tongan culture, although perceptions are changing. Slender women may be told they are too skinny, while larger women may be told they are fat, which is intended as a compliment.

Female Volunteers in Tonga often receive an inordinate amount of attention from Tongan men. Flirting, ogling, catcalls, and a certain amount of protective behavior by host family and community members are common. Females are often asked about their marital status and whether they would like to marry someone locally. Most of the attention is good-natured and can be fended off with humorous replies. Because Tongans do not engage in friendships with members of the opposite sex, it is culturally inappropriate for a female Volunteer to entertain a man (or men) alone in her home, whether the man is Tongan or another Volunteer. Her community is likely to view such a situation as a romantic or sexual relationship. Female Volunteers in Tonga have occasionally had people peep in their windows or appear in their homes without invitation or warning.

Possible Issues for Volunteers of Color

Because of limited exposure, some foreign nationals will expect all U.S. citizens to be white, and are unaware of diversity in the U.S. For Volunteers, the range of responses to their skin color may vary greatly: from being mistaken for a host country national to being questioned about their U.S. citizenship, to facing behavior and language skill expectations or ridicule, to being able to get better prices for goods and services. These instances can be turned into teachable moments for the Volunteer and the host country national. All Volunteers, including white Volunteers and those of color, should be mindful of the issues of race/ethnicity that are embedded in U.S. culture and within your country of service, and should be mindful of being an ally to your fellow Volunteers.

Some African-American and Asian-American Volunteers have been annoyed or frustrated when Tongans tell them they “look just like we do.” An Asian American may be called mata’i Siapani (“Japanese eyes”) or mata’i Siaina (“Chinese eyes”). African-American Volunteers are sometimes referred to by Tongans as nika, but without the offensive connotation associated with the similar American slur. However, when Volunteers become known to their communities, being of color has not negatively impacted their ability to serve effectively. Some Asian Americans may hear Siaina or Siapani mixed with some mock Chinese words called out to them from across the street or whispered to a friend. The name-calling can be ignored, but it may represent ignorance of, or discomfort with, diversity. Most Tongans cannot distinguish between the Chinese immigrants and Asians from other countries, so all Asians, including Asian Americans, tend to be grouped with the Chinese immigrants. This also makes Asian-American Volunteers potential targets for ethnically motivated crimes. Bars that might be acceptable for other Volunteers might be unsafe for you. Above all else, use common sense. That said, ethnic prejudice against Asians in Tonga is complex. A number of Chinese immigrants have worked hard to adopt the Tongan language and to integrate effectively. 

Possible Issues for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning/Queer, Ally (LGBTQA) Volunteers

The Peace Corps actively supports Volunteers and staff of all genders and sexual orientations, and encourages Volunteers to serve as allies to their fellow Volunteers in all aspects. Many countries where the Peace Corps serves have more restrictive cultures with regard to sexual orientation and non-conforming gender identities, though some are more permissive. In every country, Peace Corps staff will work with Volunteers to provide them with locally informed perspectives. Some LGBTQ Volunteers have chosen to come out to community members, with a result of positive and negative reactions, while some have come out only to select Peace Corps staff and Volunteers. Many have chosen to be discreet about their orientation and/or gender identity within their host community. LGBTQA support groups may be available in-country, providing a network to support the needs of the Peace Corps LGBTQA community. More information about serving as an LGBTQ Volunteer is available at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Peace Corps Alumni website at 

Tongan sexual mores are fairly strict, and unmarried males and females are kept relatively more separated than is the norm in the U.S. Gay male relationships are very discreet, though not totally uncommon. In Tonga, there is a concept called fakaleiti, whereby boys are raised as girls and take on the appearance and social responsibilities of women. This is often done in households that do not have a female child to help with chores around the house. Fakaleitis in Tonga may or may not be associated with homosexuality, though gays are usually associated with fakaleiti. Male Volunteers who engage in typically female dominated chores in Tonga are often met with laughter and called fakaleiti. Such laughing and joking tends to be harmless, as fakaleitis have long been an accepted part of the Tongan culture. You will learn more about this cultural phenomenon during pre-service training. 

Gay relationships in Tonga are not well researched and documented, but the frequency and explicitness of jokes and references suggests a prevalence that has not been openly acknowledged. Though not necessarily connected, many Volunteers observe Tongan males to be comfortable with holding another man’s hand or walking down the street with their arms around another man’s shoulder. Lesbianism in Tonga is nearly invisible. (People may say it is nonexistent.) Discussions of it are often responded to with derision or disbelief. This can pose unique challenges for gay women serving in Tonga, especially related to effectively coping with the cultural norms around sexuality.

While cross-dressing for men is acceptable, there are laws against sodomy, so having a same-sex partner can cause issues with friends, colleagues, and even possibly the law. It is best to be discreet about this until you can better assess the mood of the community.

Possible Issues for Volunteers with Disabilities

Peace Corps staff will work with disabled Volunteers to support them in training, housing, jobsites, or other areas to enable them to serve safely and effectively. 

Tongans generally treat people with disabilities with respect. The main challenge will be that the accommodations you may accustomed to having in the United States may not be available locally.

Possible Issues for Volunteer Couples

Couples often face pressure from host country nationals to change their roles to conform better with traditional relationships in-country. Host country nationals will often not understand American relationship dynamics and may be outwardly critical of relationships that do not adhere to traditional gender roles. It is also helpful to think about how pressures to conform to local culture can be challenging to men and women in very different ways. Considering how your partner is being affected and discussing what, if any, aspects of your relationship should be changed can help reduce stress for you both.

Possible Religious Issues for Volunteers

The overwhelming majority of Tongans are Christian, and attending church and observing holy days are important activities in every community. On Sundays, for example, recreation is forbidden by law. Regardless of their own faith, many Volunteers choose to attend church to show respect for local customs and to develop relationships in their communities. Volunteers of every religious/spiritual persuasion are encouraged to recognize the church as an important community institution. Volunteers who are worried about the religious/spiritual nature of this participation can consult with their peers or Volunteers from previous groups on how to tactfully work in a church-dominant society while maintaining one’s own beliefs. Many Volunteers who have been particularly concerned about this aspect of serving in Tonga have observed that attending services is a way of showing respect for local customs and helps develop relationships in their communities.

Possible Issues for 50+ Volunteers

Older Volunteers may find their age an asset in-country and will often have access to individuals and insights that are not available to younger Volunteers. But, pre-service training can be particularly stressful for older trainees, whose lifelong learning styles and habits may or may not lend themselves to the techniques used. A 50+ individual may be the only older person in a group of Volunteers and initially may not feel part of the group. Some 50+ Volunteers may find it difficult to adapt to a lack of structure and clarity in their role after having worked for many years in a very structured and demanding job. More than younger Volunteers, older Volunteers may have challenges in maintaining lifelong friendships and may want to consider assigning power of attorney to someone in the States to deal with financial matters.