Suva, Fiji, 10 March 2021 – Irma Daphney Stone is a trendsetter. She began her career as a development accountant in her home country in Tonga in 1994, a time when business graduates in the kingdom were rare. She became the first female chief executive officer of the Ministry of Revenue and Customs in 2012, at that time she was one of a handful of females holding leadership positions in either customs or taxation in the Pacific. She is now the Operations Manager at the Oceania Customs Organisation.
This is her story.
Like many career women, Daphney has had to balance her professional and personal life.
She gave up a promising career to follow her husband, Pr. Dr. Ronald Stone as he either went for studies or for work to Fiji and the Philippines.
But the mother of three has no regrets. With the firm belief that a secure family life guarantees a secure professional life, she used the opportunities to further her experiences and knowledge.
Such as working towards a PhD degree in the Philippines and employment with organizations like the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, the University of the South Pacific and the South Pacific Tourism Organisation. “It’s always a hard decision to resign but we prayed about every decision we had to make, and it has always worked out in the end,” Daphney says.
Her early stint with the Ministry of Finance in Tonga set the foundation for Daphney and helped her in her various roles as a servant of the Pacific.
She managed World Bank projects in the country, as well as the government debt and when she was promoted to CEO of the Ministry of Revenue and Customs, she already had stints as the chief internal auditor and deputy secretary of investments.
“One of my roles was inspecting government projects such as building or constructions projects, at the time it was rare for females to be in such roles but I did not see it as an obstacle or felt out of place,” Daphney says.
As CEO of the Ministry of Revenue and Customs, Daphney led the government revenue policy committee that first introduced revenue measures on products that negatively impacted on health, including food and tobacco. In her tenure, the Ministry’s remuneration grading structure was aligned with the whole of Government and she also convinced the government to self-fund its customs management system upgrade.
Daphney also chaired the OCO Heads of Customs Meeting in 2013, where critical decisions on the future of the organization were made.
“It’s always important to see challenges as opportunities,” she says. “I have experienced these over the years, and I have no regrets.”
Challenges for Women in Customs
As a former CEO of the Ministry of Revenue and Customs in Tonga, Daphney has seen the challenges faced by women customs officers.
“I think one of the important challenges is balancing culture with the roles and duties of customs officers. For example in Tonga, Customs officers are required to climb up fuel tanks, board ships, and conduct inspections. On the other hand, women are required to wear the traditional sulu, and this becomes challenging for women customs officers who will need to wear comfortable non-traditional clothing to conduct their duties,” Daphne says.
In her work as the Operations Manager at OCO- a role she took up in 2019, Daphney has been supportive of gender equality.
In 2019, the OCO held its inaugural Change Management on Gender Equality workshop, which suggested there should be gender equality on all aspects of OCO’s work programs.
“We are working in challenging times due to the impacts of COVID-19. Most of our OCO members are struggling to collect revenue and at the same time keep our borders safe from being infiltrated with illicit drugs, contrabands, and COVID-19.
“My role is to ensure that our members are being aptly supported through our programs and more importantly that our female customs officers who are outnumbered in every administration in the Pacific are provided the same opportunities as male colleagues to improve their knowledge and skills.”
With the closure of borders, OCO like all organisations across the world is offering online training, webinars to its 23 members.
In February, more than 80 officers from 17 countries in the region began a 10-month online training aimed at equipping them with skills to address daily challenges and those brought on by the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The training delivered by the Centre for Customs and Excise Studies, Charles Sturt University, Canberra, and the Oceania Customs Organisation will end in November and leads to a Certificate III in Regional Customs Administrations. It’s the largest training, in terms of numbers, ever conducted by the OCO. It is also a stepping stone for trainees to continue to tertiary studies in Customs.
“We have a bit of gender inequality there as two-thirds of the trainees are women,” Daphney says. “But if we look at the bigger picture where there are lesser women in Customs administrations, it is justified to train our female Customs officers to be equally capable as their male counterparts.”
As a Pacific islander serving the region, Daphney has advice on how to be successful.
“Always commit to doing your best in what you do and for everything you do, you must have a spiritual connection to the one above. True commitment is words in action.”
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Our Gender Program: In 2019, the OCO held its inaugural Change Management on Gender Equality workshop, which suggested there should be gender equality in all aspects of OCO’s work program. This suggestion was endorsed at the 2020 OCO Annual Conference. In 2020, OCO member countries were encouraged to celebrate International Women’s Day in their own administrations and to share their activities widely. This year, OCO is dedicating the month of March to our women. The Pacific Women in Customs Series is a collection of stories of women who are working in Customs in their various countries and we hope to inspire more women to join this field of work.