The Synod of Vic/Tas celebrated International Women’s Day (IWD) for 2023 with some inspirational stories given by Isabel Thomas-Dobson, Associate General Seceratry, and Rev Sylvia ‘Akau’ola Tongotongo, our Vic/Tas Intercultural Communities Development Coordinator, and also a member or PPE Presbytery.

Her passion is to talk about the importance of multiculturalism and developing an intercultural framework within the Uniting Church. Sylvia speaks from personal experience.

The theme for International Women’s Day 2023 is “Embrace Equity”.

Embracing Equity
At it’s most realistic, to Embrace Equity, does not equal a bias-free world! We will always have our own biases, perceptions, gifts, and flaws based on context, situations, regulations and cultures, making our lives together interesting, colourful, rewarding, places of growth and more – the things that make us complete.
Embracing Equity is about saying yes to, advocating for, and demonstrating that the world is diverse, equitable and inclusive, where difference is valued and celebrated.

So for us as a Church, as a workplace, as a community, as a family, what do we acknowledge and celebrate on International Women’s Day 2023?

Giving Thanks for Women
We are acknowledging with thanksgiving the value and worth of women’s contribution to the rhythm of life in all its joys, challenges and hopes. Today we give thanks for women saying, “You matter. You belong. You make a world of difference. Who you are and what you do adds value to families, workplaces, communities, churches and life.” This does not reduce, disqualify or demean men’s contributions. They are equally vital to the same rhythm of life that we are all sharing.
[Photo from NCYC Yurora 2017]

We are reminded that embracing equity is never about competition of genders. We are never created to compete – we are meant to complete one another.

Our use of language matters. When we talk about success and achievement of women from an intercultural perspective, that’s already talking about competition and comparing. Here we’re appreciating the values of difference of being women! When we do, we appreciate more of the world of difference that men’s contributions make, and vice-versa.

Intercultural Perspectives
From an intercultural perspective, migrants to Australia have different entry points into conversations about equality and equity – careers, obligations, duties, responsibilities;
For example, Tongan family is a matriarchal system – a social organization by which a woman holds authority. The mother or grandmother is the head of the family and descent carry the social status through the female line.

As my mother’s daughter, my maternal grandmother’s granddaughter, and my brother’s sister, I have a presence. I have authority – status. I am served and have the highest respect given by other members of the family in the different layers around me and beneath me according to the hierarchy of Tongan family structure.

It means I have responsibilities in that identity that differ from my responsibilities as my father’s daughter, my aunty’s (father’s sister’s) niece, and different yet again when I am a wife and mother, where I am the server of other members of the family – from a lower place in the family structure.

Responsibility and Reciprocity
Language is limiting because I am using words like higher and lower when I mean ‘just different’ responsibilities within family structures. These are not obligations, tasks to fulfil, duties or burdens. They are responsibilities, hence lived out as part of the cultural DNA – unwritten rules, no manuals – but raised to know our place when we are served and when we serve; a reciprocity of giving and receiving of a different kind, a way of being Tongan. It is a reality for my generation and older, and most of the migrant generations.

This is something that is changing and will eventually be missed from Tongans born and raised in diaspora because of different contexts, cross-cultural and intercultural families, as well as different principles and influences of systems, and different understanding of human rights.

Gender is Complex
There was no debate about gender where I grew up. Queen Salote was the king of Tonga – King being the office of her leadership responsibilities – not king as in a male person. In her book entitled Queen Salote of Tonga, Elizabeth Wood-Ellem quoted Queen Salote saying, “Missionaries and Christianity influences reduced the value, worth, importance and status of Tongan women” within the Matriarchal society that it is.

So for some women, their entry point into a conversation about gender disparity will be “Hang on, that’s a demotion for women to fight for equality with men. Why not just stick to the facts? if it’s about equal pay or division of labour, it’s not about gender.” For others from other cultures, they would rather not go there, because they simply wish to find a chance in life, which is why they escaped or chose to be here in this country. It does not mean that issues and challenges aren’t important. Yes, they are, but migrants’ priority might be to have a sense of belonging first.

There are many layers to peel off and hoops to jump before they even choose to engage with ‘forging change or driving gender parity’ as per the wordings of this years’ theme for International Women’s Day.

What about the Church?
Some will find this kind of language unhelpful because they are translated as contrary to the ethos of being church. Systems and organisations including the church have the capacity to transform the language use to be more welcoming and embracing. Last year we restarted Networking with Women’s Groups who are already carrying out missional work in their own contexts, but these are not recognized or acknowledged as mission.

There is a focus on empowering a more united and more influential voice within the CALD women and advocating for connectedness and collaboration with UCAF (Uniting Church Adult Fellowship). We also established and launched a CALD Women’s Group whose informed voices from their own contexts contribute intercultural frameworks and cultural intelligence to the Synod strategies for mission and ministry.

UCAF is an agency of the UCA Assembly and includes all adult members of the Church. UCAF is a volunteer group of at least 12,000 members. At various stages it has been called the backbone, powerhouse , lifeblood and heart of the UC. The UCAF is not widely known within the language specific congregations, hence the attempts to raise awareness, engage and participate in collaborating for the mutual enhancement of one another’s missional responsibilities.

The goal of life – whatever we want to call it is within us, always present as the life-source in us. Our primary activity is to realize and understand what is most authentic, most real for us – the truth of our best self. If we calibrate our life to that which another tells us as right or good or even required, we exchange a fuller experience of life for something less than that of which we are worthy.

WE are created to express the values which are most meaningful and life-giving and life-sustaining. WE all have strength and resources to influence our best version.

With our best self, together we also create the best world for us and others to live in.

Rev Sylvia ‘Akau’ola Tongotongo
Intercultural Communities Development Coordinator

[Photo: Rev Charissa Suli, President-elect, UCA]