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FEATURE STORYMarch 8, 2022

Creating a Sustainable Tomorrow in Papua New Guinea: Deborah Michelle Onga

Deborah Michelle Onga is a Group Legal Counsel, Group Legal Counsel at Steamships Trading Company

For International Women’s Day 2022, we’re talking with women leaders across East Asia and the Pacific who are advancing gender equality today to help create a more sustainable future for all. Deborah Michelle Onga, Group Legal Counsel at Steamships Trading Company in Papua New Guinea (PNG), has built her legal career through a commitment to service and with a determination to craft a legacy that empowers young women to follow in her footsteps.
What inspired you to join the legal profession?
My mother named me after a Bible character – Deborah, a judge in the Old Testament (Judges 4). And so, for as long as I can remember, I knew I was going to take up law.
My mother’s lack of financial independence also had a profound impact on my career choice. She was denied the opportunity to be educated because of cultural fears around her worth when obtaining bride price and upholding the honor of the family name. She was part of a generation of women who had to rely on their husbands financially.

When I got older, my family lived in a company compound in PNG where one of the managers was a company lawyer and a young woman. She had her own big house and flashy car. She was from the same province as me and she embodied an independence I wanted to have. I made up my mind that I was going to be a lawyer. If she could do it, I could do it too.

If you could describe yourself in 3 words, what would they be?
Determined, adventurous and diligent. If I want something, I will make sure that I work extremely hard to get to where I need to go. I won’t take no for an answer! And if it means to drive somewhere on my own, I will do it. I'm a little crazy [laughs].
What qualities make a good lawyer?
Integrity. You’re going to work long hours that no one is going to thank you for that require personal stamina, and you will need to do the right thing even when no one is watching.
Diligence. Like I said, it’s long hours and not as glamorous as how they portray it in the TV show Suits. It’s a workhorse job and you only get to stand in front of the client or in court for a fraction of the time. No one sees the mammoth hours you spend in the ‘dungeon’ working to deliver for your client.
It also requires humility. Have the humility to learn, continuously ask questions and to know that you are not working for yourself, but in the interests of your client.

Do you have any advice for young Pacific women aspiring to work in law?
Come at it with an open mind. People often have the misconception that law is glamorous. Most people don’t realize that it’s really, long hours of work.
Having said that, law is an interesting field to work in. Law creates the framework for society and your work could deal with a broad range of sectors, like law and justice, corporate, government, public policy, banking finance, real estate, and not-for-profit. Lawyers are trusted advisors because they help decision makers navigate through a sea of issues in any given transaction. I would say that law is a field for anyone that is interested in living a life of service because you’re always working for the best interest of your client.
As a woman in the legal profession, how have you navigated self-confidence and embracing your leadership position?
It’s been a journey of self-discovery. It’s important to acknowledge your weak spots and create a growth plan to become better, or find the right resourcing to complement you. It takes humility to constantly self-reflect and to acknowledge when you can’t do it on your own.
Confidence naturally builds from experience. My team and I are constantly thrown into situations where we must think on our feet and quickly learn as we go.  Your confidence in your ability to do a job should not be driven by public opinion. You determine that. You know what you can deliver. And if you push yourself, you will even surprise yourself. 
**The views expressed in this interview do not necessarily represent the views of the World Bank Group.



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