Yoshiko Yamaguchi-Capelle is the first young Pacific Island woman to be appointed to the Pacific Women Advisory Board. She was nominated to the Board through the Pacific Young Women’s Alliance, a group she has been involved with for a number of years now. Recently, the Pacific Women Support Unit’s Senior Programs Manager Emily Miller, was in Majuro, Republic of Marshall Islands (RMI) and had the opportunity to talk to Yoshiko about this achievement.
Tell me a little bit about yourself…
From my name, you can probably tell, I’m half Japanese (my father moved to Majuro in the mid 80’s). I was born and raised on Majuro and graduated from a local high school here. From there, I went to University in Hawaii at Hilo where I majored in political science and women’s studies. I took an introductory course in women’s studies and I found it really interesting so I added it onto my major.
I graduated and came back to the Marshall’s in May 2012. The first job I had was as a Field Researcher for the RMI’s Family Health and Safety Study, so I immediately came back and went into groundwork. This project was a collaboration between UNFPA, WHO, Ministry of Internal Affairs and WUTMI[i]. The work that I did for this project allowed me to understand the issues that many of our women were dealing with first hand. I was a “by-the-books” type of person, being fresh out of college and a bit naïve. My interviews with many of our local women allowed me to understand from a different angle. Then, in September 2012 I applied for a position to work as the Public Awareness Coordinator for WUTMI. Having just wrapped up our fieldwork in Majuro I transitioned from a field researcher to a field speaker. I worked there until the project ended in 2013 and moved to my current position as National Coordinator for UNDP[ii]’s Global Environment Facility Small Grants Program.
I’ve only been in RMI for two weeks now but a number of people have talked to me about age. It seems to be something that people really place importance on in terms of credibility. Can you talk to me about that?
Yes, I’m 25 and that has definitely had an impact on me. Age discrimination is quite prevalent in the Marshall’s and your support systems are really important. There have been many naysayers, but most of the people who have been supporting me throughout my career have been supportive regardless of my age. It is important for me to acknowledge the support unit that I have as research has shown that young people who become critical thinkers had enabling environments that allowed them to fully participate and develop. Without my support unit, I wouldn’t be where I am today.
I have been an advocate for youth from a human right’s perspective since I returned from university in 2012 because of the issues surrounding youth in the Marshall’s. More than half of the population consists of people below the age of 30. Most of which are struggling with numerous social issues. I was a teenage mother myself, having my first child at seventeen. So when I came back and was working with WUTMI as the Public Awareness Coordinator, I would go and talk to communities about domestic violence and I also incorporated information about teenage pregnancy.
I’ve also worked a bit with UNFPA[iii] around some of their publications about teenage pregnancy in the Pacific – some people are quite confused and kind of see me as someone who promotes teenage pregnancy, which of course I don’t. I believe prevention is really important and there are a lot of prevention programs but what about if you are a young parent and there is no support? What happens then? I want young women and men to know that it’s not the end. That you’ve still got a lot of opportunities and many ways you can contribute to the community.
Although it’s not part of my formal job or anything, sometimes teachers from the high schools contact me to talk to students, who are expecting a child, about their options. My husband is also called to talk to the young men who become fathers at a young age – what it means for them and how they should support their partners and their families.
Who has been the most influential person in your life to date? Who’s the person who’s supported you the most?
Oh, I’ve had a lot. But, I think my father and my husband. My father first, and my husband later on in my life. My father instilled in me that nothing is beyond my reach and to work really hard. He’s all about believing in yourself and what you’re doing. My husband for supporting me through and through.
What about professionally, is there a job or access to a particular professional development opportunity that you believe has really opened doors for you?
Definitely WUTMI, they are like a public figure organisation in the Marshall Islands. From your time here, you would have seen that WUTMI is very active and impactful within the community.
WUTMI’s network is where I started networking. Then Katie [Kathryn Relang, WUTMI’s Executive Director] nominated me to my first Pacific Youth Conference in Fiji, sponsored by UNICEF[iv] and that’s where I met most of my current colleagues. Also, in my role as a Public Awareness Coordinator, I got a lot of experience speaking in public events and I joined a number of great networks at the community and national level. These keys things have helped me build up everything I have today.
How do you feel about joining the Pacific Women Board?
I’m excited but to be honest, a little bit intimidated because I’ve read about all the other Board members and the all the work they’ve been doing in their countries. I really admire them. I’m going to be star struck!
I met Minister Maere [Tekanene] when she was the Chair at the 2014 Triennial and I’m so excited to work with her and the other Board members – they have all done such great work in their countries. I’m also really excited to contribute from a young women’s perspective. I want to pull in some of the elements within many strategic documents that youth have worked on because we’ve actually had a lot of influence.
It’s really important for youths to have “a say” in the Pacific as a big chunk of our population are the youth. Imagine the work that can be done if we have more youth participation.
What is the primary development issue for youth in the Pacific that you’d like to create more awareness on?
Well there are two main things. First and foremost, youth participation at all levels of decision-making. I think if we provide the opportunities for youth to participate at the community level, in project implementation, local government and the national level, we will start to see improvements in programs.
The second, and these two tie together, is education and youth unemployment. The issue here is the lack of opportunity and rising high school dropout rates which is not just about teenage pregnancy. It is also about poverty and substance abuse. In my family, my mother’s generation has nine siblings and only two of them graduated high school. No one graduated from tertiary education until my generation and even in my generation, I’ve got 50 something first cousins and my sister and I are the only ones that have degrees. So, you can see, it’s a struggle but I am hopeful that the future is indeed a brighter one.
[i] Women United Together Marshall Islands (WUTMI)
[ii] United Nations Development Fund (UNDP)
[iii] United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA)
[iv] United National Children’s Fund