The Disruptor Series: Tasman Bain of Meri Toksave
Our Disruptor Series highlights the work people are doing across the globe to challenge the status quo and make the world a more equitable place. Today we’re in conversation with Tasman Bain, co-founder and deputy director of Meri Toksave, a youth-led NGO which concentrates on ending gender-based violence in Papua New Guinea.
With the leadership of Ayesha Lutschini, Courtney Price and Tasman Bain came together to found Meri Toksave, an organisation which crafts programs and projects to fight gender inequality, and, more specifically, to improve access to information for support and referral systems for survivors of violence in Papua New Guinea. The name loosely translates to “information for women” in Tok Pisin (the official language of Papua New Guinea).
The organization was born in 2013 out of a desire to challenge the stigma around domestic violence in Papua New Guinea. The three founders met while studying at the University of Queensland, and a combination of personal experiences with violence, a drive to pursue equality, and a love for Papua New Guinea drove them to generate the idea that is now Meri Toksave. With seed funding, mentoring, and access to a network of experts through a Fellowship from the Resolution Project, their idea left the realm of imagination and entered reality. Immediately into our conversation, Bain recounts how Meri Toksave is “informed by feminist principles and the local and traditional ways in which women in the South Pacific and especially Papua New Guinea have always been integral to communities, integral to sustainable development, but also integral to knowledge and traditions."
This perspective is particularly critical when confronting the lingering problems of colonization. Bain notes that “the root causes of gender based violence in Papua New Guinea are so multifaceted; some of that is due to cultural norms around patriarchy and violence and some that is more contemporary and related to colonization” by the British Empire, Germany, and then through colonial administration by Australia. He is quick to challenge problematic and lingering narratives around gender-based violence to emphasize that “it’s not only a Western thing to care about women’s rights, and it’s not exclusively a Papua New Guinea thing to commit domestic violence. If anything, some communities in Papua New Guinea have championed the traditional importance of gender equality and the power of women.” This is part of the reason why the logo of Meri Toksave is two heads meeting together; a reflection of the traditional greeting between people in Papua New Guinea coming together in respect.
In 2013, Papua New Guinea’s national parliament passed the Family Protection Act which, for the first time in Papua New Guinea’s history, criminalized spousal rape. Bain reflects that the failure of Papua New Guinea’s legal system to address such an issue previously is a direct result of colonization, as they adopted Queensland’s criminal code while under their administration. Over 15 years of local women’s rights activism pushed this bill forward, and Bain notes that the change is due to the women who “worked at the grassroots level, worked in their communities, and talked to politicians to say: this needs to change.”
Bain and his co-founders tapped into the energy around this act, and in January 2014 launched their “Directory of Emergency Services for Those Affected by Family and Sexual Violence.” "Our first focus was to improve information, accessibility, referral systems for emergencies, and support systems for women and girls, and more specifically, survivors of violence,” says Bain. There was nothing similar in existence at the time, and he and his co-founders felt compelled to address this problem so that those experiencing violence had every resource available to them in one easily accessible place. With the help of local youth-led organizations like Voice Inc. and Youth Against Corruption, and support from international NGOs such as UN Women and Oxfam, the directory was distributed countrywide.
On the one year anniversary of the Family Protection Act, Meri Toksave also launched a “They Say We Say” campaign to raise awareness about domestic violence and challenge normative assumptions that it is a private and not criminal issue. “It affects everyone: children, families, and men as well,” says Bain. While he notes that the legislation is by no means perfect, it is a launch pad “to start that conversation.” Using social media and posters, the campaign focused on gender-based violence in order to address the normalization and misinformation around the issue, with the aim to encourage positive changes in attitude, behavior, and information.
Next up for Meri Toksave is a leadership and think-tank program for youth in the South Pacific. “We want to see young people that are better educated, informed, and equipped to understand gender inequality issues across the South Pacific, so they are more gender conscious,” says Bain. This way, “when they go on to be leaders of their communities, be it in public or private institutions, men and women will have better knowledge and better tools to understand and tackle gender inequality.” Meri Toksave is expanding to include the greater South Pacific due to a region-wide lack of women in leadership positions; women who are “systematically discriminated against and absent from decision making processes at a policy level,” according to Bain. The goal of this program is to empower young people to understand the full spectrum of gender inequality and subsequently engage with their communities and governments to make a change. Bain notes that in order “to get that generational change in attitudes and behaviors, it’s always important to engage young people in that process. The youth empowerment focus is what we try to emphasize a lot.”
At the end of our conversation, we asked Bain for his definition of feminist foreign policy. He offers that “it’s beyond the simple and obvious example of women in peace and security, and beyond gender equality and gender mainstreaming in development policy. I think it is about empowering women and girls but also making sure that diverse voices are heard at the decision-making, policy-making, and political representation table.” He notes that simply adding more women will not do it justice, but rather structural and legislative changes are necessary to fully implement a feminist foreign policy. “This also includes domestic violence leave for public servants, flexible working hours, equal parental leave, and making sure your organization has opportunities for women to rise.”
Bain ends with the reflection that “there is a nexus between gender inequality and every single problem in international affairs. That’s peace, security, sustainable development, and human rights, and more.” Such a gendered perspective can always be integrated, both in the pursuit of greater women’s representation but toward overall gender equality as well. In short, “a feminist foreign policy is intellectually rigorous, morally important, and practically fertile ground for improving foreign relations.”
Interview and article by Marissa Conway.