Updated: Jun 15, 2022
If you know me, you know I'm passionate about mental health, the environment and gender equality. You can imagine my excitement when a few weeks ago, the amazing wordsmith, Oceania Poet a.k.a Ceelah Joy invited me to answer a few questions for @womenofthepacific, an insta page dedicated to sharing stories of women from the Pacific.
Some excerpt was featured on the Women of the Pacific insta page, but I also wanted to share them here on my blog. The questions were insightful and it made me think twice and think hard about how things could be made better in Tonga regarding gender equality. I'm grateful for the opportunity to reflect upon the issues raised and I hope it will also challenge and inspire someone else.
Please also check out Oceania Poet on Instagram @oceaniapoet (https://www.instagram.com/oceanianpoet) for powerful poetry.
1. How do you see the state of Gender Equality in the Pacific at the moment? What challenges do you recognize in your country/community that hinder women’s visibility and participation in male-dominated spaces?
I think there still needs to be a lot of work done within the Pacific region as a whole to reach a stage of Gender equality. However, I’ll focus my discussion on my home country of the Kingdom of Tonga. In Tonga, I suppose one of the biggest challenges that hinder women’s participation in male-dominated spaces is the deeply ingrained mindset that women don’t belong there, and women’s only domain is the house and home.
Funnily though, when Gender equality is discussed in Tonga, I’ve had people say Tonga has already reached gender equality because women can vote and women culturally have a higher social ranking within family settings (i.e. the fahu system). When we dismissively say “Yup, Tongan women can vote, drive, work and we respect them within our family structure so that’s enough, we’ve already achieved gender equality in Tonga” it minimises the issue and makes it look like we’ve already solved a huge problem, when in fact, it is only performative and it’s really not enough. What I mean by not enough is that it’s still women in Tonga who are disproportionately affected by domestic violence. It’s still women in Tonga who have to bear the shame and stigma of pregnancy outside wedlock, in particular, teen pregnancies. How can we say that we have gender equality in Tonga when women get the shorter end of the stick?
My work experience is within the Public Sector, and within it, there are some efforts by the government to address gender issues under the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG Goal 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls). For instance, there is work in progress to implement a Sexual Harassment Policy across the government.
However, I remember when the first Gender training and consultations were being rolled out a few years ago, people were like, “What!? This is considered sexual harassment!? Doing XYZ and saying XYZ is actually bad!? This is what we’ve always joked about! Can’t people take a joke anymore!?”. Undoubtedly, it will take some time to unlearn internalised misogyny and what we regard as traditional gender roles. To address this though we need to notice and acknowledge that some things that we’ve totally normalised really shouldn’t be the norm at all, in particular, gender roles as a construct.
We in Tonga can’t say we’ve truly achieved a level of gender equality when Tongan women are still not equally represented in areas of leadership and decision making. For instance, major religions in Tonga has never had a female leader or church president. We’ve never had a female Prime Minister either. Within the Public Service at the CEO level, there is a significantly higher number of male CEOs to female CEOs (70:30%).
I don’t think enough people think it’s strange yet that the top seats and the most seats are taken up by men because that’s what we’ve become so used to. There are women in those spaces, but I don’t feel they are given enough authority, freedom or empowerment yet in comparison to men. Men have so much decision-making power in Tonga, and that’s remained unquestioned over so many years because that’s what we see as “normal”. It’s high time we changed how we think and focus on empowering women, but also educate men that they don’t need to take up all the space. Empower women and encourage and educate men to be allies.
2. What do you believe your country needs to close that particular gap?
Without a doubt: education, awareness, socialisation and normalisation. However, I do think it will be a challenge and it won’t be something that would be achieved overnight. As we raise our children, we can educate and teach them while they are young about gender equality. For people who may have already unconsciously internalised misogyny, we can encourage them to unlearn gender biases. We need more people to be aware of the currently existing power dynamics in our society due to gender and empower people to question it and challenge it. When we talk more openly about gender issues and focus on gender mainstreaming, it would become normalised and accepted as the new norm. This will be hard work and it will be heavy work, but it is work that needs to be done.
3. On a more personal note, what has been your greatest challenge so far? What lessons did you learn that enable you to move forward?
This is not related to gender equality, but I recently returned to Tonga after studying in the UK. I feel like the time I spent in the UK at the height of the pandemic while juggling studies and anxiety of how to return home to Tonga, was the biggest challenge I’ve had to face so far.
Due to Tonga’s strict COVID-19 travel border restrictions, I was left stranded in the UK for 6 months after the duration of my studies. I didn’t have any support network in the UK and I was running out of money. The time I spent there by myself during multiple lockdowns felt like the loneliest and most desolate time of my life. Despite that, the biggest takeaway from that experience is to take better care of my mental health and prioritise self-care. I had no one to lean on in the UK, so I had to buckle up and pull myself together. I can’t do that if I wasn’t in a mentally stable place, so looking after my mental health became my top priority.
4. Any advice you would give to your younger self?
I’d go back specifically to my 21-year-old self and tell her don’t lower her standards and don’t ever apologize for being ambitious. That was the age when I had just graduated from university and was in a headspace filled with anxiety and doubts about the future. When you’re filled with self-doubt, it’s very easy to believe people who say things to bring you down. Women in Tonga are expected to be quiet, humble, obedient, supportive and sacrificing. It’s suffocating trying to fit into that mould when every fibre of your being rejects that!
To my 21-year-old self, never forget that you are the protagonist, not the supporting role in your own life! Be ambitious and don’t ever let anyone make you feel bad about your big dreams!
5. Last question. Any experiences or stories of strong women that have moulded you or inspired you? Or are there any stories of gender inequality that you’ve experienced or witnessed and how did you respond to them?
As cliché as it sounds, I’d have to say my mother is my inspiration. She is Japanese and she came to Tonga from Japan in the 1980s at age 21 to teach soroban (Japanese abacus) as part of the new education curriculum in Tonga at the time. She raised my siblings and me in a country and culture that is not her own, far away from her own family and all that she is familiar with, but she still managed to raise us to embrace and celebrate both our Japanese and Tongan heritage. When I was studying overseas, I always thought of my mother, who chose adventure in Tonga over the comforts of Tokyo, and what a badass move that was.
One negative experience I’ve had that I believe is due to my gender is when I was looking into applying for a higher position. I needed references and advice, and most of the people I talked to said I don’t need a promotion at the stage I was in in my life. I was a single and unmarried woman, what do I need the extra money from a promotion for? I was told a man needs it more to support his family. One person even jokingly said I’m pretty enough and I just need to marry a rich man! As if looks are all a woman needs to progress in this world! As if women can’t be the main breadwinners! If I was a man, no one would say such a thing! Why do they think it’s appropriate to say to a woman or to anyone in general? It seems like people accept that ambition is absolute on a man, and ambition is arrogance on a woman. I eventually did get a higher post, but I’ll never forget how that comment/experience made me feel.
Now, when I have young women come to me for career advice, I never hesitate to tell them to be unapologetically ambitious. Apply for that scholarship! Apply for that higher paying job! I do what I can to go through their CV, letters and references because I never want anyone else to feel ashamed for wanting more and wanting to be more. Ambition looks great on everyone!
6. Final thoughts?
Throughout the world, there still needs to be a lot of work to absolutely eradicate misogyny and gender inequality. However, we can take small steps in educating ourselves, and unlearning elements of our ways of life and culture that contributes to upholding archaic and toxic gender roles and expectations. Obviously, it won’t be easy within the Pacific region, where collectivist culture and specific gender roles exist as part of the Pacific way of life. As we strive for change in this side of the world, I hope we can continue to work together fearlessly to achieve a level of gender equality that protects and empowers our people, in particular, our women. Thank you for this opportunity to share my experience and thoughts. Malo ‘aupito pea tu’a ‘ofa atu!
As always, thank you for reading Hafe-Kasi Writes. I've been away for a while, but I'll be back again with more material soon. Until then. Tu'a 'ofa atu.