Well, starting in my childhood, I always loved seafood! My grandparents were church ministers and all the communities where they worked were coastal communities. So, I grew up around the ocean. I’ve always been drawn to the ocean and curious about the things there.
My first job as a university graduate was with the Tongan Ministry of Fisheries. When I joined the ministry, I had no idea about fisheries, but my major was in economics. I was recruited as a statistician, which provided me with the opportunity to learn more about the role of data and economics in fisheries. But, at that time, there was no one who could guide me in what economics meant in relation to fisheries management. It really demonstrated the need for mentorship in this space, which is now part of my role at the Pacific Islands Forum.
I’ll speak in the context of fisheries, which I am more familiar with. In the Pacific we are connected to the ocean, but it can be different for men and women. Acidification typically affects ocean areas in shallow areas, and that’s where a lot of women fish and glean. Climate change is destroying these fishing grounds for women, meaning that women are more disadvantaged. As a result, they must venture further and find different fishing grounds or spend more time out at sea. That adds to the responsibilities that women already face, such as caring for children. That’s one way that gender inequality connects with some of the impacts of climate change.
In fisheries, there is always the question, “Why are we talking about gender in fisheries?” Often, we look at the actual action of doing fishing, but women play a greater role outside of that. We can leave the heavy lifting work to men, but understanding the role that women play, post harvesting, is also important.
One of the biggest lessons that I have learned is the importance for leaders to listen. We consult with different stakeholders, but that doesn’t mean you truly listen to them. At times we end up with policies that are counterproductive and not fulfilling their purpose. It’s also important that leaders don’t just listen to key stakeholders, but those working under them too. That way, you know their capabilities so that they can contribute to where the gaps lie.
We often use the word ‘empowerment’, but I think that empowerment means different things to different people. For me, empowering women is mentorship. Mentorship can help women to navigate around complex spaces. I think a lot of women are very capable of stepping up to leadership positions in the Pacific. Often, they underestimate themselves because there are not a lot of opportunities, so we need to give women more platforms so that they can gain experience.
It’s also important to give women more challenges outside of conventional roles, such as around the home. Women won’t know what they’re capable of until they’re put in those positions. We don’t want to be given opportunities because we are women, but because of our ability. We can contribute as much as our male counterparts.
In the Pacific, culture plays an important role and is a big part of our lives. At the same time, it can be a stumbling block for progress for women. Women who grew up in the Pacific know these dynamics. Having that understanding means that Pacific women have the upper hand in navigating how to communicate, and who to communicate with. That means that women can not only be heard but their voices are respected as well.
Be bold. A lot of women, including myself, question our ability. But I think women are very capable. Women should step up and take on opportunities. Don’t shy away from opportunities when they come your way. Take on new challenges because that’s the way to grow. Dig deep into yourself and see what you’re capable of. Our cultures can be intimidating, but we shouldn’t be afraid. At the same time, we can also go about it in a way where we are not creating conflict but stepping up in harmony with our male counterparts. Strive for excellence in whatever you do, because the saying ‘actions speak louder than words’ applies true to what women can do in the Pacific.
**The views expressed in this interview do not necessarily represent the views of the World Bank Group.