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FEATURE STORY March 8, 2020

Breaking Barriers in Tonga: Lesilei Katokakala Lutua


For International Women’s Day 2020, we’re getting to know the pioneering women across the Pacific and Papua New Guinea who are breaking barriers and creating change for the decade ahead. Lesilei Katokakala Lutua is the Chief Air Traffic Controller in Tonga, which recently celebrated the opening of its new Air Traffic Control Tower, which was funded by the World Bank.

Tell us about your journey.

I finished high school in 1985 and my priority at the time was just to help my mum because she was raising us by herself after my dad passed away. So I thought that the best way to help her out was to get a job. I started work in 1986 working as a Junior Clerk in the Prime Minister’s office. But my real passion ever since I was in school, was to do something that was more technical – I wasn’t sure just what exactly – all I knew was that I wanted to work in a very technical and specialized area and that was where my heart was. A year after working at the PM’s office, I had an opportunity to study aviation at the Civil Aviation School of Training in Bangkok, Thailand. That was such a great opportunity that I was so blessed to have – to go and study overseas, but to be honest, I remember it was also very scary for me. It was the first time to leave home – I was a young woman, I was still single and I had to go live in not just any new place, but a move to a whole new foreign country all the way out in South East Asia - all by myself.  The course was six months so when I returned to Tonga in 1988, I was very fortunate to begin my career in the aviation industry, starting in the air traffic services, and I have never looked back.

In 1988 - the air traffic services then was only a flight information service managed out of Nadi (Fiji). But then in 2001, after extensive work with ICAO (the International Civil Aviation Organization), Tonga was able to establish and run its own expanded air traffic control.  

In order to meet the requirements for an air traffic control, a special team needed to be appointed to undergo the necessary training to establish that airspace. As a result, six people were chosen and from 2001, I was appointed as the only female amongst this pioneer group to receive status as an air traffic controller and become the first woman ever in Tonga to hold such a position. So from 2001 to 2010, I was the Aerodrome and Approach controller before being promoted to Senior Air Traffic Controller. And then in 2015 I became the Chief Air Traffic Services Controller. And that’s how we are here today.

Throughout your life’s journey, what or who would you say inspired you the most?

Definitely my mum. She was always my hero growing up. Because when my father passed away, my siblings and I were so young. She had to provide for us and look after all of us and everything all on her own.  She was a teacher, and became a principal for a primary school she worked for. She was always there for us. She encouraged me and helped make my dreams possible.

What would you say you love most about your work?

I think the thing I love most about my work is essentially, that we are keeping people safe. When the team and I are here doing our job, there are literally hundreds and thousands of people every year flying in and out of the Kingdom of Tonga and it’s our job to safely and effectively direct all that air traffic, give the right information out to pilots, ensure that in everything that is being done that we maintain consistent and professional services and comply with aviation standards and requirements to keep everyone safe.  It is not only exciting and something that I am passionate about – but it is important so that people can reach their destinations and loved ones safely.

What has been one of the most challenging parts of your work or career?

I would say being a working mother was very challenging, especially when my kids were young. When I first had my kids, it was a really big adjustment to find that work-life balance and then to be able to quickly pick up where you left off after returning from maternity leave. You have to remember everything and get back to where you started, while also taking care of your family.

There are many components to this role, it is highly technical and highly specialized and extremely important for the safety and security of everyone concerned. It is definitely challenging to balance and juggle everything. But I love being a mother, and I love my job so much, that I just have to figure out how to do it all. I just do my best to meet that requirement and high standards that work demands of me. When you love your job and when you are passionate about what you do – you cannot relax – you must keep learning, keeping improving and finding new and improved ways to get the job done and to be the best.

You have to do your best. You have to work hard. And you have to be honest and committed. But most of all, through all the challenges, God is the one who helps make it all possible.

How have you stayed interested or motivated to work in the aviation industry all these years?

My family is my biggest motivation.  I draw my strength from my family and they are the reason I am able to do what I do because they support me too. I have to work hard for them and work hard for everyone in Tonga and for anyone who wants to use air transport.

What has it been like to be the only woman in your field?

I don’t think there was any difference really that I felt from my male colleagues. Anyone can do the job – never mind if you’re a man or a woman. I don’t think others saw me differently; at least they didn’t make me feel like there was any difference because I was female. Anyone can do anything in life, right? You just have to work hard and be brave in your heart and follow what your heart is telling you.

In life, you just need to be honest with your work and don’t think only some jobs are just for males or whatever – if you apply yourself and really commit to it – we each have God-given talents, so if you just trust God and believe in yourself, you can do anything.

What are your hopes for the future? 

I hope I can start a business after I retire. Something still linked to the aviation industry, because there are so many things you can do in this industry. I want to be doing some sort of work in this industry for the rest of my life, because it is my passion; it has been a huge part of my life for the last 30 years.

My hope for Tonga, especially the ladies – I hope more women become leaders in our communities. We can do anything: whether it’s in the aviation industry, or to aspire to be a chief of fire services, or chief of security – if a Tongan woman wants to do it and to be a leader in whatever area she chooses or is passionate about: she can do it.

Today I can see women being town officers and also representing our people in parliament. This is encouraging, and we should see more women stepping up – that is my wish anyway. For the Pacific region, I hope to see more young women in leadership roles too, fighting for the future we all deserve. The difference between male and female is that we can have babies – we can get pregnant – but really – it boils down to this. As a woman - you can have it all if you want – you can be a mum if you want to be and you can also have a career – just don’t limit yourself.  Just keep moving forward and win, win, win!

As we celebrate International Women’s Day, what important message would you like to give to young girls and women?

To be brave. Don’t be afraid or think that certain jobs only belong to males. God gives us all talents – just use your gifts and talents to the best of your abilities. Be a leader: don’t shy away from things just because of what others say or think. Don’t let that discourage you just because you are a woman.

I didn’t have any women as my superiors or anything to show me what to do. I just follow instructions, I work hard, I respect my supervisors and follow my parents’ advice and examples. Work towards your life goals and look ahead with positivity – don’t look back – look forward to what you’re aiming to do!


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**The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of the World Bank Group and its employees.