How did you get into your role as a Country Liaison Officer with the World Bank?
It’s interesting really. The World Bank didn’t initially cross my mind for employment. I had worked in government for 15 years. In 2016, when I was Secretary of Foreign Affairs and Immigration, we launched a World Bank-financed road project, and I met the World Bank team at the inauguration ceremony, and they were advertising for this position. I was really amazed by their large-scale investments and how it could transform the lives of local people.
I joined the World Bank at the start of its scale up program in the Pacific. Several breakthrough investments are currently being prepared. For instance, over the course of the next seven years one project is working towards delivering continual freshwater access across South Tarawa. There have also been massive economic reform programs and now a focus on COVID-19 and health systems strengthening. These have all been huge steps forward and once finalised will be transformative for ordinary I-Kiribati people. That’s a big reason why I joined the World Bank. It’s exciting to be a part of milestones that were once not thought possible for Kiribati.
Is there a female leader that inspires you?
There are a lot of women leaders that inspire me, like Helen Keller, Mother Teresa, Kamala Harris and many others.
But the one woman that stands out to me is my mother. While my dad was very educated, she was illiterate. She barely speaks English. Yet, if somebody asked me about my childhood memories, they're filled with scenes of my mother dedicating every evening to homework, helping me and my brothers learn our spelling and times tables. As I grew up, it dawned on me how little she knew about the world. But what struck me was her determination to educate herself and not let her limitation get in the way of teaching me and my siblings.
To me, my mother symbolizes courage in the face of overwhelming odds. She inspires me, not only from her unfailing love, but her determination. She taught me that anything is possible if you put your heart and mind to it. I wouldn't be where I am today if it was not for the education, nurturing and mentoring that my mother gave me.
What do you think needs to be done to ensure more women end up in leadership positions in Kiribati?
Actually, Kiribati has a remarkable track record when it comes to women in leadership. More than 50 per cent of the public service is made up of women and 70 to 80 per cent of secretaries are women. When I worked in foreign affairs, there was a time when all our foreign missions were headed by women. It’s a remarkable leadership chain.
But, as much as I love stories about breaking ceilings, I’m also drawn to the untold stories of ordinary mothers and wives in Kiribati. There are many women that continue to operate within the traditional, patriarchal setup of society.
The Kiribati maneaba system, for example, is a decision-making process that is strictly men only. In the maneaba, the men would take their positions proudly at the inner circle of this meeting house. Women would sit at the back. They are not allowed to contribute to the discussion but only stand by to serve food and drinks when summoned.
For outsiders, this could trigger outcry about discrimination. But the woman’s role in this system is actually very important. If the food is not ready, the maneaba system collapses.
To me, it is important for women to embrace both worlds: our roles at home and in traditional settings, and our professional roles. I own my role as a mother, but also have the freedom to chase big dreams in the workplace. And most of our women leaders pride themselves on their ability to play these two roles without difficulty. That’s what’s unique about Kiribati women.
Do you have any advice for Pacific women?
Be your own champion and don’t be afraid to chase your dreams. Let’s teach our daughters to become G.I Janes’ and Kamala Harris’ during this pandemic – in the village, in school and in the workplace.
Too often, we grow up with this mentality that we should let the man speak first, eat first. But I’m teaching my daughters to speak when they feel something is not right. It’s about giving our women and our daughters the voice. They also count and are capable of anything.
What are your hopes and plans for the future?
I hope for a future where my daughters can speak their mind freely. I wish for them a world where they are loved and respected; one that upholds their education, health and welfare.
We can’t expect the world to give them this – we must build it for them from home. My father died when I finished high school. His influence created what I like to call a family culture. It was a culture that influenced my family positively in the way we think, our respect for others and how we perceive ourselves in life, no matter how challenging things may seem.
I too want to create a positive family culture at home, so my daughters can go out into the world and be ready for any challenge they face. The Pacific is already known for its family culture. I think there are a lot of great stories out there for us to share with the world.
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**The views expressed in this interview do not necessarily represent the views of the World Bank Group .