JO CHANDLER | The Age
Toni's people are customary landowners. The precious plot of soil bequeathed to her had sustained generations of clan, thanks largely to the sweat of her female forebears, and now it was feeding her four teenage children.
But her time in the garden had also begun to nourish something else - a hunger to improve her family's hard-scrabble existence and that of the rural diaspora crowding into the port city's shanty-town settlements, old and new residents all living cheek-by-jowl without running water, power or sewers.
What she observed working down in the dirt became her motivation. She went back to university to pursue a masters degree in development.
She started talking to political parties and doing preference deals; she sought out training on campaigning; she worked the neighbourhoods, collecting stories and rousing support; she set her sights on gaining a seat in the PNG parliament and, with it, the power to change realities.
Just last month she realised that dream in a seismic political upset in which she defeated her grandfather, the fondly regarded veteran statesman Bart Philemon to become the member for Lae.
She signed up to join the ranks of the new O'Neill government, and the rookie MP was catapulted onto the frontbench, becoming Minister for Community Development.
Late last week Loujaya Toni MP - gardener, teacher, poet, singer, journalist, mother, wife and (judging by a lively phone interview) political firebrand - was in the Cook Islands, where she was to be welcomed into the fold by some rather more experienced female political operators: US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and UN Women chief and former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet.
(She was also to have met the Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, who had to leave the Pacific Islands Forum early because of the deaths of five soldiers in Afghanistan.)
As she scrambled from Port Moresby to Rarotonga this week after getting the message that ''Hillary wants to meet you'', Toni reflected that her break into the male enclave of Pacific power came courtesy of a collusion of factors.
She had the education, the determination, and a restive electorate prepared to vote against old paradigms. Now she hopes the planets are aligning to usher in other women.
Toni's success in the polls coincides with a welling up of momentum, awareness and investment in the gender agenda in the Pacific, as highlighted by the announcement this week by Gillard at the Pacific Islands Forum of a $320 million, 10-year initiative to expand women's leadership and opportunities in the region.
Pacific countries have the lowest proportion of women in parliament of any region in the world, lagging behind even Arab states. Women hold just 5% of Pacific parliamentary seats compared with a global average of 18%. In Australia and the Americas almost one quarter of MPs are women.
Loujaya Toni is one of three women to win seats in the 111-member PNG Parliament in the recent election. The last Parliament had just one female, the Queensland-born PNG political veteran Dame Carol Kidu.
''Gender equality is not a marginal issue,'' Gillard told the Pacific forum in launching the initiative on Wednesday. ''It's not just about fairness to women, but it's also about economic development and empowerment.''
Women account for just one in three people in formal employment across much of the Pacific.
They endure high levels of violence. Two out of every three women are affected by violence across the Pacific.
Earlier this year a UN Special Rapporteur visited PNG and the Solomon Islands and described attacks on women and girls as a ''pervasive phenomenon'' that must be tackled.
They also have some of the worst health indicators in the world. A survey of maternal death rates in PNG in 2009 estimated deaths in childbirth had more than doubled in a decade, rising to 733 per 100,000 births, almost 100 times that of white Australia.
Three years ago Kidu presented a bleak report to the UN on the situation facing women in PNG, which argued that in many communities women were going backwards, losing even traditional status in the rush to modernity.
The paper explored entwining themes that reverberate across the Pacific, of status and violence, the lack of political representation of women, the dearth of female role models, the lack of access to land and capacity to earn income, lagging female education rates, high fertility rates and the failure of fragile health services.
The initiative unveiled by Gillard will look at ways to interrupt those cycles by getting women into positions to influence policy.
''The key issue is that women's voices need to be heard and their perspectives included where major decisions affecting society are made - that is, in the national legislatures,'' says Dr Orovu Sepou, a research fellow and authority on women's politics in the Pacific, based at the Australian National University.
Former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark - now administrator of the United Nations Development Program - believes greater female representation is crucial because women, for the most part, ''bring a different set of life experiences'', whether talking about a developing country or a developed one.
''No matter how equal and how many rights you have, still women disproportionately end up with the care of children, worrying about the schools, worrying about the elderly relatives, the relatives with disabilities,'' she said.
''Women are different from men in requiring the full support of health services when they are healthy and having their babies, and not just when they are sick. They are very acutely attuned to service delivery and health and education.''
Clark also sees a close relationship between social, economic and political status and safety for women.
''I remember, the first country visit I made [with UNDP] was to Liberia, and I sat with a room full of women drawn from every walk of life,'' she said.
One woman, advocating micro-finance to women to start businesses, had said ''when women have money, men don't bash them''.
''Now that might be putting it very crudely - and having said that, I'm also very aware that violence cuts across every social class - but that whole sense of elevating women makes a difference.''
In launching the Pacific women's initiative, Gillard also emphasised the economic case for supporting women.
''We know that societies only reach their full potential if women are politically participating as equals - that's a key indicator of social governance,'' Gillard told the Rarotonga gathering.
The International Labour Organisation estimates that the Asia-Pacific loses up to $US47 billion annually as a result of women's lack of access to employment opportunities.
Loujaya Toni said she welcomed the strategies now emerging to assist women gain a political voice in PNG and surrounding states, her own story signalling that the time was ripe, given voter dismay at the male-dominated status quo.
''I got my votes not only from my own [clan] people, but from the settlements around Lae, where there is growing frustration, growing animosity in some places, about the disparity between the haves and have-nots, and the lack of opportunity,'' she told The Saturday Age.
That frustration had helped her overcome the formidable cultural, social and financial obstacles that frustrate the aspirations of many women to gain power. Geography also likely helped. Her campaign was in an urban seat.
Many candidates contesting PNG's mostly rural seats are defeated before they start because they lack the resources to get out and campaign in isolated communities.
Toni credits her victory over 25 male candidates to win Lae in part to some training provided by AusAID and the UNDP. ''But that didn't go as far as financial capacity building and support - that we had to source for ourselves.''
She also had the endorsement of a party, which was critical, she says, although it did not translate into financial support beyond some campaign posters.
''I depended heavily on my community. I was there every day talking to people about what their rights were. I said to them 'we are all being deprived [of basic services]'.
''I said 'if you can give me the political mandate, I know what I will be running with - our rights to water, to decent sanitation, to power, to a public transport system'.''
Toni said that she was careful not to present herself as a candidate for women only. ''I didn't stand on the women's votes alone. I am representing men and women.''
One of Toni's two new female parliamentary colleagues, Delilah Gore - a former public servant, widow, mother and respected local churchwoman from the town of Popondetta - also credits her victory to profound changes in village dynamics and in the way people exercise their votes.
Over her six-month campaign, much of the talk was about women's empowerment and rights. ''During my father's time - and he was a local politician - you never saw women openly talking about these things. Women changed their way of thinking, and husbands supported their wives.
''A lot of men were fed up, too, with the men they elected going into the Parliament, but never coming back home and bringing services.''
This week Gore went back to Popondetta with a team of engineers to look at the crumbling roads, and an architect to evaluate the local health clinic.
As the final votes were counted delivering Gore her seat, the story came to her of a young mother who had died in childbirth, unable to get medical help.
''A lot die in the same manner,'' she says. She is determined to change that.