For International Women’s Day 2021, we’re sitting down with women leaders across East Asia and the Pacific who are working towards a more equal future in a COVID-19 world. Mother of three, Mary Alalo, was the first woman in Solomon Islands to be appointed as a World Bank Project Coordinator on the Community Resilience to Climate and Disaster Risk Project where 70 sub-projects, covering access to safe drinking water and more resilient communal buildings for vulnerable communities, directly benefited close to 69,000 people across the country.
How did you end up working with the World Bank?
My dad is from one of the most vulnerable islands in Solomon Islands, Ontong Java. It is very susceptible to sea-level rise and other climate change-related problems. And my mother is from another island, Tikopia, that is very vulnerable to tropical cyclones. I grew up seeing the impact of disasters and climate change, and so after graduating from university I changed my career from being a high school teacher to program management, because I wanted to help my people build their resilience.
I worked with the Australian Government and Oxfam and then I joined the World Bank’s Community Resilience to Climate and Disaster Risk Project (CRISP) as Project Coordinator, because I saw that the aim was to help vulnerable communities manage the impacts of climate change and disaster risk. I was responsible for the overall running of the Project Management Unit and I supervised the whole team.
You were with CRISP for the life of the project – seven years – why did you stay so long?
The CRISP Project was really inspiring because we saw the difference to the lives of people in the communities that we served. For example, a majority of the projects were in the water sector, and women would tell us that before the project they would have to walk three hours in line to collect water, and then spend two hours at the stream because there were a lot of other women and girls collecting water. They would spend around five hours a day collecting water and when they got back to the village they were so tired, but they would still have to cook the food. But now, with tanks and pumps and other infrastructure delivered under CRISP, the women say they can just go to the garden, come back and cook. Seeing the smiles on the women's faces, and the community as a whole, that's really inspiring.
Also, with each community grant, we made it a requirement that there had to be three women in the Project Implementation Committees. Everyone in the committees was trained in finance, procurement and other technical aspects of the project. That’s why the majority of the CRISP grants are [focused on] water, because women were the key decision-makers during the community meetings. Gender was mainstreamed from the start of the project and then right to the end.
Do you think the pandemic has presented new challenges or opportunities for women in Solomon Islands?
The pandemic brings more responsibilities for women at home, especially in rural areas where women and girls are the ones fetching water, collecting food and looking after the whole family. If there is community transmission of the virus, it is women who will have more responsibilities added to their plate. Thankfully, we have no community transmission right now, as all the cases were contained in isolation centers.
I believe the pandemic also presents new opportunities for women to take stock of our skills, our values, our careers and leadership opportunities. The pandemic has shown that we cannot continue with ‘business as usual’ and that there are gaps in leadership that need to be addressed. There are now more educated women and girls than ever before, and I believe women can strategize and work together with our men folk to bring back some of our excellent cultural values and skills to help build stronger communities.
This year's IWD theme is 'Women in Leadership'. Is there a female leader that inspires you?
Queen Elizabeth I of England (1533-1603) inspires me. She led a country when men were always rulers, war was always a threat, and society was more restrictive; looking down on women in leadership. She inspires me because, despite the many challenges to her reign, she became Queen and demonstrated that a woman can be successful, can lead and unite a nation and make that nation great. She also demonstrated that you don't need a husband to be successful but rather courage, strength of character and staying focused are the key ingredients to being a powerful leader.
What are your plans for the future?
Since CRISP ended in May 2020, I’ve started a new job with the Ministry of Environment, Climate Change, Disaster Management and Meteorology. I am working as the Project Coordinator for the Third National Communications Report and the First Biennial Updated Report.