A conversation with Tasman Bain, co-founder of PNG gender-equality charity Meri Toksave. By Cass Moriarty.

Gender-equality activist Tasman Bain

When I meet Tasman Bain I know, among other things, that he once gained the respect of various military advisers by eating 15 boiled potatoes at the Polish consulate in New York. I know that he is an advocate for young people and social justice, and is involved in international policy work, gender equality, human rights and sustainable development. I know that he was recognised as a World Economic Forum Global Shaper, that he is a polymath and that he once danced with the deputy secretary-general of the United Nations. I also know that he is 24.

Our conversation begins with Tasman’s Grandpa Jack, whom he describes as an “early social justice warrior” and “a role model for fairness”. One of 13 children, Jack survived the Great Depression, fought in Malaya, and spent his life serving others through politics and trade unions. He instilled in Tasman a respect for the “inherent dignity and equality of humanity”.

Through his undergraduate studies of anthropology, history and politics, Tasman has critically examined genocides, atrocities and civil rights movements in his efforts to formulate his own intellectual and emotional understanding of power and injustice.

“My philosophy is part humanistic, part democratic socialist and part intersectional feminist,” he says, and his life is evidence of his desire to translate these theories into action and service.

Meri Toksave, a Brisbane-based, youth-led women’s rights initiative in Papua New Guinea, is a perfect example. Founded in 2013 by Tasman and fellow students Ayesha Lutschini and Courtney Price, the organisation sprang from brutal beginnings. When Ayesha was a toddler, her mother was murdered in a carjacking in Port Moresby. Tasman’s introduction to PNG was walking the Kokoda Track as a school student – “a life-changing and pivotal experience that opened my eyes to poverty and disadvantage”.

Together the three attended the 2013 Harvard World Model United Nations “Resolution Project” in Melbourne, identifying the problem of gender violence in PNG. Awarded a seed grant, they developed a nationwide database of support services for victims of violence, communicating in the Tok Pisin local language to collect information from groups such as large non-government organisations down to isolated police stations. The document is now widely circulated throughout provinces.

Meri Toksave raises awareness of violence and aims to be “meaningful, sustainable, flexible and credible”. The largely self-funded team in Brisbane and PNG works with groups including World Vision and Oxfam to support local women’s rights activists. Their next goal is a fellowship project to encourage young women into leadership roles in business, politics and the community, in response to the fact that only 17.4 per cent of parliamentarians in the Pacific are women, the lowest rate in the world.

Tasman’s presentations to the Global Ideas Forum, Brisbane Feminist Festival, and the Queensland Premier’s Domestic and Family Violence Forum support his philosophy of empowerment and gender equality.

“Men should not be the leaders of gender equality, but allies,” he says. “It’s imperative to engage men to become more self-reflective about how we contribute to gender inequality, and how we can be positive agents for change.”

Tasman is grateful for the guidance of past teachers and mentors. He acknowledges his privilege and his “identity as someone who hasn’t experienced structural challenges”. He aims to “ally with and listen to women, gender-queer and other people with intersecting identities”. He believes positive behaviour “has to start in early childhood, empowering young women to access opportunities and encouraging men to stop being barriers”.

Our chat comes full circle when Tasman again mentions the political work of Grandpa Jack. “The biggest challenges facing Australian young people,” he says, “are economic insecurity and political disempowerment, or a lack of representation.”

He says there is “intergenerational tension and stereotypes that young people are lazy, entitled, narcissistic and too sensitive, but our generation is not unique; every society [has had] its challenges”.

While “young people are passionate about specific issues like refugees and climate change, it’s a priority to mobilise, sustain and translate that passion into broader change”.

His own goal is a future in policy formation on issues such as gender equality, diplomacy and Indigenous affairs.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 16, 2017 as "Tasman’s bridge building".

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