What was it like growing up in the Marshall Islands?
I was born and raised on the island of Ebeye. It is the second most populated island in the Marshall Islands and one of the most densely populated places in the world. So there’s not much privacy at all. You could literally stand on one side of the island and shout to your friend on the other side. It takes maybe 30 minutes to walk around the whole island. I assumed that whatever I experienced there was the norm across the whole country, but I later discovered that wasn’t the case.
Every morning I would take a 15-minute ferry ride from Ebeye to the Kwajalein United States (US) military base where my school was. Only a small number of students got to attend the schools at the military base, and I was very fortunate to be one of them. That was my daily experience – going back and forth from my island to a completely different Western world – and I grew up thinking that was normal. After I graduated I went to the US for college, but given the diversity within the Marshall Islands, interestingly, I had more of a culture shock going to Majuro or other parts of the Pacific than going to the US for the first time.
How would you describe the Marshall Islands?
Small, spread out, but all connected by the ocean. Even though islands are far apart, we are bound by the same culture and the same language, which shows that our ancestors were ace ocean navigators and sailors. They captured all these islands and united everyone under the same language and culture.
How did you get into parliament? What has your journey been like?
For me, a career path leading to government life was inevitable. Many members of my family have been, or are in, government. All of them are role models for me. A number of my grand uncles were presidents. We see the need to help our people by serving our people. There is an ingrained sense of duty to our people.
What has been your experience in a predominantly male-oriented space?
Learning about American history growing up I heard about gender inequality and violence against women, and I will not be naive and say that this does not happen in the Pacific. But when I went to the Parliament and took up the position that I'm in right now, I have found my male colleagues to be very supportive. The cabinet, the ministers and presidents that I work with, they're pushing me to grow. Despite my age and my gender, I feel that my colleagues respect me and my opinions.
That is closely aligned with the traditional role of women in Marshall Islands’ culture being held in high regard. Women are the center of society. Everything that makes you legitimately Marshallese in terms of land, title, clan, are passed down through your mother or maternal lines. A lot of things have changed and are different in different settings, but I’ve found that in government I am supported.
Still, only I and the former president are women, in a parliament of 33 members. I don't feel that we can properly represent half of the population. When you look at government agencies, the heads of department positions are mostly held by women. But politically that’s not the case. Slowly but surely, we're working on getting more women serving in parliament.
What needs to shift or change in terms of mindset?
It has a lot to do with culture and tradition. Traditionally, although women hold the power in culture, they appoint a male relative to speak and act on their behalf, or on the clan’s behalf, at meetings because, according to the men, they want to protect women from the disagreements, arguments and fighting that usually takes place in meeting houses. But we have to change with how the world is changing. Our culture is what makes the Marshall Islands so unique and is based off love, respect, unity and caring for others. So this is at the core of what I think we should preserve. But you can't achieve this if you don’t have equal representation. So I want to urge all women to try out for these positions. There’s nothing that women can't do.
Are you seeing any shifts in terms of subjects that young girls are taking up in school?
We want more girls to pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects. Currently, those sectors are male dominated. But this government recognizes the importance of capitalizing on the vocational skills of our students.
Through the World Bank, we have a skills and education project that will bring technical vocational studies to all grade levels. The project also includes traditional vocational studies that caters to our outer island students to give them the skills to fish and make handicrafts and thrive without migrating to bigger islands.
What is your message for young girls wanting to become future leaders?
There is nothing women can't do. We just need confidence – we need to really see our self-worth. I want girls to realize that once they see their value, their self-worth and love themselves, they are unstoppable. We need to support each other because together we are a force to be reckoned with.
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**The views expressed in this interview do not necessarily represent the views of the World Bank Group and its employees.