‘I want to be CEO of a company in three years’ time.
Ms Ofeina Filimoehala, participant of Pacific Private Sector Development Initiative’s Women Business Leadership Program, Tonga.


Project name: Support to government for key ending violence against women events
Outcome area: Leadership and decision making
Project partner: Government of Tonga Women’s Affairs Division
Total funding: $590,000*
Funding timeframe: 2014–2017

On International Women’s Day in March 2016, the Tongan International Women’s Day National Planning Committee set their sights on a clear goal: to have as many women as possible elected to leadership positions in the forthcoming local government elections. With a dedicated campaign and efforts to promote women’s candidature supported by Pacific Women, they were successful with women elected to two positions that have never been held by women before.

The Tonga Electoral Commission announced that Ms Sisifa Fili will be the District Officer in ‘Eua Motu’a District in ‘Eua and Ms Vika Kaufusi will be the Town Officer for Havelu in Tongatapu. Neither of these positions have been held by a woman before.

In addition to this success, four other women placed in second position: one for District Officer (Hihifo District in Vava’u) and three for Town Officer (Ha’alalo and Ha’atafu in Tongatapu and Matamaka in Vava’u). This significant achievement allows these women to be deputised, including the opportunity to be Acting District and Town Officers.

These ‘first wins’ are significant on multiple levels. Not only is it a new opportunity for women’s voices to be heard at the local government level, but as a Pacific Women-funded research study conducted by the State, Society and Governance in Melanesia program at the Australian National University shows, women candidates in the Pacific who poll well in national elections typically have built good reputations as a local representative. The hope of those supporting the local government women representatives in Tonga is that this may also be a pathway to national parliament.

In total, there were 18 women who ran in the local government elections. Pacific Women supported the Women’s Division at the Ministry of Internal Affairs with the International Women’s Day activities and also the training offered to the candidates.

The women involved in the campaign believe there are still many challenges ahead. Some women candidates were not welcomed by the existing town officers as they campaigned. They also said that it continues to be difficult to try to change the mindset of Tongans to believe that women can lead as well as men.

Yet these challenges do not deter the Women’s Division. With the successes of the local government elections, they will continue their efforts to work towards greater development of women in leadership positions as well as advocating good leadership and governance at local and national level.

*This activity is part of a larger program.

Project name: Pacific Private Sector Development Initiative (PSDI)
Project partner: Asian Development Bank
Total funding: $500,000*
Funding timeframe: 2013–2015

Successful businesses need successful leaders. To support motivated women in mid-level management roles to become such leaders, Pacific Women funds the Women Business Leadership Program of PSDI. In 2016, PSDI provided 14 Tongan women with skills, knowledge, mentoring and networking opportunities to advance their careers.

’I want to be CEO of a company in three years’ time,’ was the clear goal of Ms Ofeina Filimoehala, following the completion of the training.

Ms Filimoehala and the other participants took part in three two-day sessions that equipped them with the skills and confidence to take on senior management roles. Topics included understanding different organisational cultures and the challenges and skills of successful business leaders. The program also addresses institutional change by harnessing the support of male advocates, who agree to act as mentors and advocate for women employees and entrepreneurs.

Participants reported that the networking component of the program was particularly valuable. This component taught participants how networking can be used to raise their profile, presence and influence within their own organisations. The training also promoted networking with other leaders in their field. More than half of the participants reported that their own networking ability had significantly improved as a result of the training.

This program is being replicated in Fiji with 30 participants from 17 organisations including financial institutions and major companies, such as the ANZ Bank, Reserve Bank of Fiji, Digicel and Fijian Holdings.

To date the program’s success in Fiji has resulted in two requests. The first was from the South Pacific Stock Exchange, who are preparing a paper on increasing diversity of corporate boards. The South Pacific Stock Exchange requested PSDI to partner in the replication of the program in Fiji’s 18 listed public companies in 2017. The second request was from Fijian Holdings to present a plenary session on diversity at a conference of business leaders advocating institutional change particularly in recruitment practices and in-house promotion policies.

At the completion of this program, 44 women in 27 organisations would have undertaken the program, two informal networks of professional women would have been created, and over 12 male advocates would have been recruited to advocate for the economic empowerment of women.

Tongan women participants of the Women Business Leadership Program. This program is also being replicated in Fiji with 30 participants from 17 organisations including financial institutions and major companies. Photo: Pacific Private Sector Development Initiative.

*This activity is part of a larger program.

Project name: Support for Women’s Groups and Coalitions
Outcome area: Leadership and decision making
Project partner: Pacific Leadership Program (PLP)
Total funding: $200,000*
Funding timeframe: 2015–2016

The year 2015 was an extraordinary year for gender equality in Tongan politics. In February, the Government announced at the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women that it would ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Six months later, it reversed this decision. Over the past year, Pacific Women has supported the PLP to work with Tonga’s Women in Leadership coalition in understanding the events of 2015 and start developing strategies to regain momentum in the bid for Tonga’s ratification of CEDAW.

Women’s coalitions are often a crucial force in securing developmental reform. They utilise collective power and resources to amplify the strength of women who are otherwise politically marginalised.

Such coalitions need to adapt to local political contexts. This is called ‘thinking and working politically’.

The Women in Leadership coalition has worked for over a decade to achieve CEDAW ratification in Tonga. During 2015, the coalition acted to explain the legal meaning and benefits of CEDAW ratification in response to the vocal anti-CEDAW campaigning, particularly from religious leaders, asserting ratification would result in uncomfortable social outcomes for Tongan society.

The anti-CEDAW demonstrations and reversal of the government position affected members of the coalition by uniting them in their aims. Recognising that a conventional workshop would be insufficient to foster the necessary reflection and dialogue for the coalition to strategise collectively, PLP organised an overnight retreat.

’It was very useful because we had the space not to be hurried, and to think openly and reflectively,’ observed one participant.

Activities focussed on communication, crafting messages to specific audiences, mapping out networks, and identifying gatekeepers and strategies for influence. Participants also received an update from the Ministry of Internal Affairs on its plans for future consultations on CEDAW.

Following the retreat and reflections on the events of 2015, the coalition is highly motivated to build bridges where relationships have been problematic, and to widen its existing network of allies. They know this has challenges but are steadfast in thinking and working politically to progress their cause: ‘You really have to come back in some other friendly way, trying to appeal to people that this is not just for a limited group, but this is for the rights of all women. Women are not the only beneficiaries, everybody else will benefit if we ratify CEDAW.’

Staff of Women and Children Crisis Center (WCCC) Tonga. WCCC Tonga is one of the key organisations lobbying for CEDAW ratification in the country. Photo: WCCC Tonga.

*This activity is part of a larger program.