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FEATURE STORY February 24, 2021

Leading the Way in Fiji: Alisi Rabukawaqa


For International Women’s Day 2021, we’re sitting down with women across East Asia and the Pacific who are taking on leadership roles and working towards an equal future in a COVID-19 world. Alisi Rabukawaqa is a champion of ocean conservation. As the Project Liaison Officer of International Union for Conservation of Nature, she uses marine science to help protect oceans – and the planet – for future generations.

How did you get into your role at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and what inspired you to start working in the field of climate change?

Much like any regular job, I saw a vacancy and applied. I had wanted to work at the IUCN ever since I went to university. Now, I work as a Project Liaison Officer in Fiji within the marine program. I focus on helping countries fulfil their commitments to protect at least 30 per cent of their oceans through marine spatial planning.

A lot of my childhood was spent near the ocean in Fiji, which inspired me to work in the field. But, when I was growing up, I always thought I would be a doctor like my father. I never considered jobs outside of being a lawyer, doctor or nurse.

That changed in high school when I went on a tour of the University of South Pacific. I learned about its marine program, and I remember standing there thinking “Wow, I could get a job to be in the ocean, dive and fish? And I get paid to do that?”

In that moment I decided to switch degree paths. I had always loved the environment, so I figured if I could get a job that helped me protect it, it would be the ultimate dream job.

How has your work been impacted by the pandemic?

In the IUCN marine program we serve five countries: Fiji, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, and Vanuatu. Prior to the pandemic, our team was always travelling to conduct consultations and assist with spatial planning.

When the pandemic hit, we suddenly had to work remotely. All of a sudden, the rest of the team was stuck with me in Fiji! It meant that I could have in-person meetings with people I usually only connected with through phone or email, including government ministry partners. Being together helped. It meant we could all focus together.

Has the pandemic presented new challenges for women in Fiji?

The pandemic has affected rates of gender-based violence. The first lockdown was 6pm to 6am. Now, with zero community transmission for more than 300 days, we still have curfews from 11pm to 4am. I’ve heard about gender-based violence in groups that I engage with. Affected women have been unable to leave the house and escape. It’s a difficult situation.

Do you think that the pandemic has created any positive changes for gender equality in Fiji?

I’ve seen an increase in awareness about women’s needs. When the pandemic happened, the community mobilized to support young mothers to make sure they had access to diapers. Sanitary packs were provided for women as well.

It’s a big shift compared to the last 10 to 12 years, when I first started working. I remember seeing ration packs provided after a natural disaster in 2016. It included food, but no baby formula or hygiene products. They didn’t think of babies or mothers or young girls. Fast forward to now; ration packs are considering the needs of women. I think that’s great.

What are your hopes and plans for the future?

I would love to expand my work in marine spatial planning to focus on the wider region, not just Fiji. I want to see how it expands because our oceans are connected. Marine life does not know the borders that we draw out on maps. They migrate. They move. We have to work as a region if we want to make things work for our oceans.

At the same time, I also want to dive deeper into my country and look at Fiji’s provinces, districts and villages. I’d like to assist in planning, so these areas have the information about their fishing grounds and how they can protect it for future generations.  

What do you think needs to be done to ensure more women end up in leadership positions in Fiji?

There has been a great push to get more women elected. However, one thing I’m wary about is that just because a woman may be in the room does not necessarily mean they will advocate for women’s rights. Their priorities in leadership may be different. Ultimately, I think it goes back to the education curriculum and what kids are taught.

I see a great generational shift. My grandmother was from the generation that would tell us “a woman should be seen and not heard.” There is even an expectation in my parents’ generation that a woman’s place is in the kitchen. For that to change, it comes down to how we raise our children. We should teach boys and girls about their equal value, because we’re all in this together.

I'm very positive that change is coming. Women in leadership do not threaten men. It does not kick people off a pedestal. It simply adds value to everything that has been built. It’s about creating space so that there is more room for all of us to grow equally, together.


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