Amidst the darkness of 2020, the world celebrated the work of women that challenged our institutions; Jacinda Ardern, Greta Thunberg, Kamala Harris and the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg; to name a few.
As a young woman committed to gender equality, these women inspire me to reach higher. But recently, I’ve realised that there is just as much power in looking at our feet. It is our roots – our family – that can serve as one of our deepest sources of strength.
Over the past few weeks, I had the privilege of speaking to female leaders across the Pacific for the World Bank Pacific’s 2021 International Women’s Day campaign. As an intern, I joined the World Bank team to interview women across the region; to hear their stories, in their words. From Kiribati to the Marshall Islands, I heard powerful stories of childhood, hardship and dreams for the future. Each conversation was rich and diverse in its own way. But there was one commonality between them.
“Who is the female leader that inspires you, and why?” I asked.
The answer was always the same: “My mother.”
Akka Rimon, a World Bank team member in Kiribati, continues to be inspired by her mother’s dedication. Despite being illiterate and speaking little English, Akka recalled how her mother helped her and her brothers with their homework every night, practising times tables and ensuring they were prepared.
Alisi Rabukawaqa, who works in the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Marine Programme, admired her mother’s consistency. Her mother, a midwife, has never been late in her 36-year career – always arriving one hour early before her shift.
Antonia Wong, from the Suva (Fiji)-based World Bank South Pacific office, described how her mother was one of Samoa’s first female taxi drivers. After her last child went to school, she bought a cab and began to work. She became incredibly popular across Samoa, often receiving phone calls from mothers asking if she could deliver their children to and from school.
As I learned of these stories, I began to reflect on the role my own mother has played in my life. While the politics of gender equality was rarely discussed, my mother sacrificed comfort to ensure that her children were educated, cared for and happy. She worked tirelessly as a nurse – never for the validation, but instead with a desire to care for others.
I have also begun to appreciate how the interplay of race, gender and class affected her experiences as a migrant woman. As a child, I witnessed firsthand incidences of discrimination. I would hear the laughter of my classmates when she wore traditional wear, or the assumptions that she was unable to speak English.
My mother’s story is a branch from a larger tree. The stories I heard during my internship demonstrated that there are incredible women from all corners of the globe that are breaking barriers in their own way, big and small. At the same time, I was also reminded of the work we must collectively do to ensure that all women can live a life of dignity, safety and comfort.
While the Pacific has experienced a comparatively low number of COVID-19 cases compared to other areas in the world, the gendered impacts have been deeply felt.
The women that I interviewed described how lockdowns and the economic impact of COVID-19 have sparked higher rates of gender-based violence as a result of women being unable to leave the home. The closure of schools meant that women faced additional pressures of teaching children, working and caring for the home. Front facing industries like tourism have been decimated; acutely affecting women in casual and informal work.
As I read these statistics, I reflected on how many women are similar to my own mother, yet lacked essential social support during this crisis.
These problems alarm me. As a young woman about to enter into the workforce, I know these are problems that my generation will inherit. They are not merely abstract – they may very well affect my own life.
Gender equality is not reserved to a certain age or generation. Across a woman’s life, from being a newborn girl to an elderly woman, gender barriers remain in some form. These issues will not fade away if they are merely passed down to generations. The only way they can be addressed is through governments, businesses and those with influence treating it like a priority – which it must be.
Thinking about the systemic nature of gender inequality can feel overwhelming; a quicksand into deep, complex and intertwined problems.
Yet, my internship reminded me that, while it is important to follow the numbers, there is power in being able to put faces to problems too.
When I think of a better future for women, I now picture the woman teaching homework to their children despite having little education herself. The woman driving a taxi. The timely midwife who was always ready for her shift.
As I push forward, I look at the roots below me: my mother, a migrant woman, who gave up so much to ensure that my siblings and I could do whatever we set our minds to.
Borders may be closed. Yet I feel these roots stretch across the Pacific, combining with the powerful Pacific women who I have been so fortunate to learn the stories of.
Let us find solace in the ground, as we look for a better future in the sky.