Story | 26 Nov, 2019

Leba Ciriyawa Halofaki Mataitini wins CEC Excellence Award in Oceania

Leba Ciriyawa Halofaki is one of the two winners. The article shows us her main drivers and her strategy to overcame challenges

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Leba Mataitini with her CEC Award

Photo: Epeli Nakautoga - IUCN

What motivated you to start a career in this field?

From the island of Fulaga in the Lau Group of the Fiji Islands of the South Pacific is where I was born on 17 July, 1951, well over 68-years ago. I have always regarded and still do believe that my tiny island consisting of four villages is one of the most beautiful places in the world. Pristine clear blue waters in its lagoons with mushroom islands dotted around it, lush green forests and mangrove plants and a very rich marine life which formed the staple diet of the inhabitants. Long white sandy beaches with swaying palms in the breeze and despite the hurricanes, cyclones and tsunami, the island seem to recover and restore itself to its beauty and serenity. Nostalgic, maybe.

This is one of the main motivations of my being interested and getting involved in IUCN over twenty-five years ago and later on with its Commission on Education and Communication (CEC). The other main motivation was at the University of the South Pacific where I joined the first regional environmental NGO known as the South Pacific Action Committee on Human Ecology and Environment (SPACHEE) which was the first member of IUCN from the South Pacific. SPACHEE was established at USP in 1982 with the assistance of SPREP and was actively involved in all the pioneering work on the environment and sustainable development in the South Pacific involving its early pioneers from the members of staff and students of USP and around Fiji and the South Pacific. Although SPACHEE has been dormant now, its ripple positive impact has been part of the IUCN movement in Oceania to date.


What are you most proud of?

There so many things are I am proud of and I will just mention a few. The first being the first girl-child from my island to have been accepted into Adi Cakobau School straight from my island school Vulaga District School, Lau Group, Fiji. This is a top girls Government School that accepted the cream of Fijian girls and trained them for leadership roles in Fijian community. One learnt independence, hard work and commitment with integrity in all you are entrusted with as a member of team and to have the confidence to assume leadership roles when the situation demands.

I am also proud of the fact that after three years at the school, my father wanted me to enter Lelean Memorial School, a co-education, multiracial Methodist Church school to complete my high school education. This was a very critical time of my life that shaped and gave me the direction and challenge of trusting in a living God for guidance, direction and perseverance in life no matter the challenges. It was a boarding school and we had to survive the best way we can, sharing the little we had and striving for excellence.

This started my journey of entering fields of study and work that no local girl/woman had gone in Fiji. I was the only girl in the Physics class at Lelean during my time. As a result of this interest, I “forced” my way into what were once reserved courses for boys/men only, the Ordinary Technicians Diploma in Mechanical Electrical Engineering, City and Guilds, London. I was "allowed to enrol" on a trial basis and a year after that, the first girl was allowed to enrol in the Building and Civil Engineering option.

All the work that I undertook at the University of the South Pacific, firstly as a Technician in Physics, and through promotions to Senior and Chief Technicians and ultimately as Laboratory Manager for the Science, Mathematics and Computing, and Engineering Technology faculty before switching to Finance as Purchasing Manager for the last ten years of my thirty-five years of service at the University. I have been a Trailblazer for girls in areas of study and work previously reserved for males.

I am a proud mother of three girls and one boy all of whom are University graduates, all married and have children of their own, blessing me with fourteen lovely grandchildren.

I am also proud of the fact that my grandchildren share my passion of the love of Nature accompanying on my walks on the foreshore Sandbar in front of our home and on our way back collect all the plastic and non-organic rubbish that wash up on the beachfront and sort them out for proper waste management. I am proud of the fact that my five-year old granddaughter picks up all the broken polystyrene food packs seen “because the fishes might eat them and die”. One step at a time, one child at a time can have positive ripple effects in future.

I am a strong believer in proper training and development of Human Resources and my work supporting the training of young Pacific islanders to have the best education at the University to prepare them for leadership roles in the countries of the South Pacific. In the thirty-five years I worked at the University, fourteen years I was part of the Fijian Education Committee that awarded scholarships to the I-Taukei and Rotuman students to undertake tertiary education in Fiji. For thirteen years, I led a voluntary Committee of like-minded Fijians to act as Mentors and monitor and assist the progress of students who received scholarship. We were not disappointed and the outcomes of these efforts are seen throughout the Pacific island countries and beyond, some of whom are also active in the IUCN and related environmental and sustainable development work in all spheres of the Pacific community.


What was a major obstacle/ challenge you faced?

The major obstacle/challenge I faced was the segregation of gender by Men. The first time I experienced this was through a job interview to become a Telecommunications Technician in Fiji around 1968. I applied from Lelean Memorial School and shortlisted candidates had to go through IQ written tests. I passed that although I was the only girl applicant there. The next step was the interview. The interview panel consisted of three persons all Males. After the interview process, I was called in and informed that I had passed all the tests and answered all the interview questions satisfactorily but there was only one problem “You are a GIRL! We do not take any girls into this field of training.” I did not have much choice but to accept their decision.

I had enquired about becoming an AirTraffic Controller and was informed by the Career Team that visited Lelean at that time that only boys were taken, not girls, and two of my classmates were accepted, I was not even “allowed” to apply.


How did you overcome it?

Persistence and perseverance and hard work focussed on opening doors for young girls following me.

This was the driving force behind my determination to be enrolled in the all-boys programme of the “Ordinary Technicians Diploma in Mechanical/Electrical Engineering, City and Guilds, London, UK” which was offered at the Derrick Technical Institute later the Fiji Institute of Technology and now Fiji National University Samabula Campus, Suva.

I believed that where there was a will to undertake something, God will show you the way. Giving up without even trying was not something I would do. Even in the faces of being turned away because of my Gender, I did not give up.

Once accepted into the male-dominated fields, I worked tirelessly hard to ensure success and a good report so that other Females following me would be given the same acceptance and respect I had experienced.

It takes unusual courage to work among male counterparts and the biggest breakthrough I experienced was being accepted on equal terms professionally. Being the only female in meeting rooms can be daunting especially with learned academics and professionals but my experience and confidence, knowledge was honed progressively to a level of being able to hold my own among them.

HARD work, respect and integrity are valuable assets to have in any situation, it does break down barriers.


How do you advance CEC’s Strategic Plan, Mission and Vision

Taking little steps in all the spheres of my life and sharing the message about the importance of conserving Nature is the main forum I use to advance CEC’s Strategic Plan, Mission and Vision. Attending meetings like the recent Oceania Regional Conservation Forum to learn and share IUCN’s progress and plans and focus areas of work has been crucial for the work of CEC in Oceania now and in the next four years.

At the centre of its Draft Programme for IUCN 2021-2024 is the theme of Equitable Governance and Natural Resource touching the three main Key Areas of Healthy Oceans, Healthy Lands and Waters and Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation. Communicating the message of IUCN as a Union that tackles global challenges for Nature, People and the Future Generations in those main thematic areas is what I and the CEC Oceania group in Fiji hope to promote and work alongside our communities to address.

At all levels of engagement beginning with the family, the Church and women’s groups, the village and island communities, the schools through old students associations, through civil society groups and organisations, the corporate sector and relevant government departments like Forestry, Fisheries, Agriculture, Environment and Local Government municipalities, ministry of women and Education.

The Methodist Church Women’s Fellowship which is one of the groups I am actively involved have Environment Stewardship as one of its pillars in its Strategic Plan for the next four years. Our own local church group has a Project on “Empowering Women as Mothers of Life” which focuses on promoting proper waste management in the homes of our fifty families, setting up Compost Bins and encouraging backyard gardening at home for food supplies as well as planting shrubs and fruit trees and other trees as ways of promoting an appreciation and conserving Nature. The Women’s group supported the request by IUCN Oceania Regional Office to have a Plastics-free Conference from August 12-26, 2019 and repackaged the food prepared for the Conference participants without the use of plastic containers, plates, cups or utensils. The waste collected was sorted out and reused or recycled and properly-disposed of. Actual carrying out nature-friendly activities speaks louder than written messages at times. The Methodist Church has 58-divisions throughout Fiji and messages that come through the Churches seem to be taken seriously by its members, so weaving the message into spirituality of the community is critical to its conservation.

Membership drive for CEC in Fiji is a major undertaking I hope to advance as through wider membership base, the CEC strategic plan, mission and vision can be shared and advanced.


Which golden tip do you have for new comers who want to follow your path

Know where your passions lie and follow the path your heart believes in and is at peace with and create your own path to where you want to go in life. Make the change you want by taking little determined steps forward with whatever resources you have in hand. Do not be discouraged by slow starts and uptakes, keep on doing the ‘right’ thing and it will become the ‘right’ thing for everyone around you. ACTIONS RATHER THAN WORDS make more sustainable impacts. Study, work hard, read widely, consult, share and walk the talk.


Is there anything else related to your professional achievements you would like to share with the CEC community

I undertook part-time studies towards the MASTER IN BUSINESS ADMINISTRATION-MBA programme and graduated on the same day as my son who studied ENGINEERING – Mechanical/Manufacturing option at The University of the South Pacific in 2002. This was to inspire grandmothers and mothers to take up tertiary and other studies. Two grandparents enrolled in the Programme the year after.

Succession planning and training has been one of my driving force and I am satisfied of its outcome in all the spheres of life GOD has placed me in during my professional and community service.

Author: Leba Ciriyawa Halofaki Mataitini

Read more stories about the CEC Excellence Award winners!