Suva, Fiji, 29 March 2021. The Cook Islands Customs Services (CICS) Trade and Revenue Assurance Section is an all women team. The seven-member team manages client services as well as trade and revenue assurance. Heading the team is Senior Customs Officer, Maria Matua Ioane who joined the service fresh out of college as an 18-year-old in 2004. Maria has been nominated by the CICS to feature in the OCO/PACNEWS Women in Customs Series.
Maria is your typical vivacious happy go lucky Cook Islander that unsurprisingly loves her country, culture, food as well as singing and dancing.
Apart from work commitments, the mother of two is also heavily involved in her children’s school, church, and community. She manages well now, but in the past, the juggle to struggle with work and her personal commitments had at one time took its toll on her.
“I tried to shoulder everything, taking on all the responsibilities for my family, home, school, church, community and sports. I tried to have time for everything.”
Maria’s normal day then would, apart from work included getting the children ready for school, making dinner and completing home chores. As a youth leader, she also had to find time for church activities.
“It was challenging, I would get very tired and sometimes I would just do nothing at all. I would take work home, but it has been a learning journey, eventually, I have learnt to balance my life at home and at work. I have made some changes at home- I have stopped taking work home, and I also focused on my physical and mental being, by eating, exercising, and sleeping well.” “My husband, children and I now share responsibilities and its working well for us. “Likewise, with work, I have shared and delegated roles and responsibilities to officers who I believe have the potential and capability to carry out the role, so far its working well for our organisation.”
Maria also believes good family support is critical for any working mother. “Having a career is challenging for a mother. I have always had the support from my immediate family and especially my husband, who had to make dinner when I’m tired or after a long day from work. He also has had to look after our children many times and be their “mother” while I am away on work trips. As a mother, it’s never easy being away from my children.”
Maria believes she has become the person she is because of her faith as a Christian and her involvement in the community, cultural groups, and sports in the past decade.
“I have over the years received support from many of these groups. When I am mentally, emotionally exhausted from the challenges of life, I find comfort and peace in church and God. There are times where things did not go my way at work or things were just impossible, I put my trust in God”
Maria’s passion for her work comes from her patriotic love for her country, or as she says “paradise”.
“I love my little paradise and would protect it in whatever way I can. Keeping our Cook Islands borders safe and helping to facilitate trade and collecting revenue for the country is important in building a better future for our children and future generations.”
Early in her career, Maria faced some challenges where she felt she was overlooked for training and promotion opportunities because she was a woman.
“The challenge for me as a woman was that I was a “small” voice amongst men, there were times where I was not heard or simply disregarded.”
“I overcame this by being patient and bold and believing that my time will come. With every challenge there is always an opportunity to change and timing plays a big part in this. To make changes, your small voice can make those changes, however, it will take time you just have to be patient and be bold with what you want to achieve and believe there is a time for everything, for those who have the will to do well.”
A woman leader
Growing up, Maria is used to being in a team of girls. She has three brothers and six sisters. She has a twin sister, and is the youngest in her family.
“As a women leader, I learn not to be the barrier but to be the way to change for the goodness of the organisation. I fully support gender equality and support the idea of sharing training and job opportunities to staff in the organisation provided it is relevant and supports their role. I am also looking at building more leaders within the organisation, because they’re the future.”
In her 16 years of service with CICS, Maria says she gained experience, knowledge, skills in different areas of Customs.
“I lead and manage a team of seven women, I do support gender equality as I believe working together is more powerful than working alone, but unfortunately the interested applicants for this area of work were all women. I also believe in supporting and empowering women in workplaces, at home or in the community by giving them the opportunity to grow and to show capacity and capability.”
CICS has had to make some redundancies as flights decreased from 22 to one a week.
“As a leader within the organisation I was mentally and emotionally affected as well, I felt obligated to help staff in any way I could. I remained in contact with these officers and kept them informed of any possible changes. Letting people go is one of the hardest decisions to make. We had to at some point, make these critical decisions as the situation became beyond our control.”
“But what I have learnt from all of these is that communication and providing factual information is key. Keeping in contact with these officers and being honest about the situation is helpful even in a negative scenario.”
COVID-19 has also changed the way CICS operates and the priorities for the organization.
“We have simplified our processes and are now meeting and conducting short trainings using online platforms such as Zoom and MS Teams which are more cost effective.”
“Despite all of that, I am enjoying this time as I get to spend more time with my families.” Maria is also thankful she was part of the Pacific Leadership Program run by NZ Customs and funded by MFAT NZ in 2019, which allowed her to understand the importance of having leaders rather than bosses.
“The skills and knowledge gained from this program, has helped me in my current role.”
“In the last two years CICS went through some significant organizational structural changes, and I am proud to say I was part of these changes amongst with other leaders in the organization. In the next month, we will start with ASYCUDA World Project.”
“Although we may be the smallest customs administration in the world, I can say that CICS in growing and glowing, that is because I believe we have leaders not bosses.”
Advice to women
Through her work, Maria has had the opportunity of making new friends from all over the globe. Describing herself as a highly self-motivated person who thrives in a diverse environment and loves meeting people from different cultural backgrounds, Maria says she enjoys work when she is presented with challenging situations.
But to be successful, she says one must first invest in their families and loved ones as they will always be the pillar of support.
“Be patient and bold, trust God’s timing and trust that God can do the impossible. Always learn to do the right thing, and do it together, for the goodness of your organisation or home. Alone you can do little, but together you can do so much, so support gender equality and empower and build more leaders than bosses.”
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For more information or for any queries, please contact the Secretariat or email: email@example.com
Our Gender Program: 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 program. This suggestion was endorsed at the 2020 OCO Annual Conference. In 2020, OCO member countries were encouraged to celebrate the 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.