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Tupoutua’h Baravilala

Digital age empowers small countries a chance to be heard

Tupoutua’h Baravilala manages Fiji’s government information technology network, oversees islanders’ digital connections to one another and the outside world, and represents her country at high-level international conferences on cybersecurity. All at age 32.

As acting permanent secretary for communications in Fiji’s Ministry of Communications, Baravilala has a huge job in a tiny country yet, she says, the digital age “has empowered new dynamics of discourse and often-marginalized voices have new and powerful platforms to be heard.”

Nations should engage “on equal footing,” she says. “We are all working to the same end: an open, secure, stable, accessible, and peaceful cyberspace for everyone.”

Small Island Developing States (SIDS) such as Fiji face unique challenges that demand global recognition. “SIDS have limited resources, our infrastructure is vulnerable to worsening climate impacts, and the small scale of our markets creates intense supply chain challenges” for telecommunications technology, she says.

Baravilala, a law graduate of the University of the South Pacific, became interested in cybersecurity during her seven years as a legal officer in Fiji’s Solicitor-General’s office. As more Fijians connected to the internet — 95% are now online — trans-border data theft and damage became a serious concern with implications for the country’s digital transformation and its expansion of government e-services.

Her experience showed “how vital it is that we maintain safe online spaces,” she says. “It’s clear to me that this subject will only become more important as more and more of our interactions shift online. The pandemic has accelerated that trend.”

Indeed, Baravilala recently led Fiji’s rollout of a COVID-19 digital contact tracing app and stood up an online national vaccination registry. Both efforts required that cybersecurity and privacy safeguards be built in from the start.

Fiji’s leaders may have entrusted Baravilala with those critical projects, but the field remains a male-dominated industry. “There’s no excuse for a ‘digital divide’ between men and women,” she says, adding she hopes more young women will pursue STEM subjects and follow her into cybersecurity.

“What’s exciting to me about this industry is its newness,” Baravilala says. “The old boys clubs aren’t so old yet, and that strikes me as an opportunity for gender equity.” —By Andrea Stone

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