21 July 2015: A new research has found that the system of traditional village government in Samoa further proves significant barriers that limit women’s access to and participation in decision-making forums.
Without significant participation in leadership decision-making at the village level, it is still a difficult step for women to become – or to be seen as – national leaders.
Spearheaded by the Centre of Samoan Studies (CSS) at the National University of Samoa (NUS), the research was conducted with assistance from, and in collaboration with, the Ministry of Education, Sports and Culture (MESC) and the Ministry of Women, Community and Social Development (MWCSD) from the period of April 2013 to July 2015.
The research team led by the CSS Director, Leasiolagi Dr Malama Meleisea conducted a nationwide survey of women’s participation in political and economic village-based organizations, covering all villages and sub-villages in Samoa.
“It was a nationwide survey of all villages followed by a qualitative study of village organisation in a sample of 30 villages with and without formal obstacles to women’s participation in village government,” said Leasiolagi. “We also conducted interviews of women candidates who have stood for past elections.”
Launched both in Upolu and Savaii, the report provides the findings, analysis and policy significance of research aimed to better understand the barriers to women’s political participation in Samoa.
“The paradoxical situation is that Samoan women have achieved approximate equality to men in most modern spheres of government and the economy, yet have never, since Samoa’s independence in 1962, succeeded in winning more than five seats in the 49 seat parliament,” added Leasiolagi.
“In most parliaments, women have held only one or two seats, usually for a single term. In 2015 Samoa was among the countries ranked lowest in the world for women’s representation in parliament, at 128 out of 140 countries.”
There is no one single cultural factor contributing to women’s limited participation. Leasiolagi said that out of all the villages that were surveyed, the enumerators recorded 21 villages do not recognise women matai, and after the public consultations, it was found that this is only so in 19 villages.
“This means that even if a woman is given a title by her lineage, she cannot legally hold it if it is not recognised by the village. This is a very obvious impediment to women wishing to stand for parliamentary elections because village councils are highly influential in elections, especially villages with large populations of eligible voters.”
(insert piece of 5.5.% of women matai currently residing at villages where titles belong)
While the research team acknowledges that much of Samoa’s social stability rests on the continued effectiveness of village councils and churches in village government, the exclusion or marginalisation of women’s voices in the governing of Samoa’s villages, as well as at the national level, is likely to be to be counterproductive in relation to some of Samoa’s development issues. These issues have been well documented in government reports and include high rates of teenage pregnancy and prevalence of sexually transmitted infections, poor management of village and district schools, prevalence of family violence and gender-based violence, lack of attention to the needs of girls in village youth organisations, inadequate vaccination coverage in infants and children, problematic use of alcohol and drugs, pockets of rural poverty and disadvantage, and prevalence of preventable non-communicable diseases.
“Women as well as men need to take leadership in addressing these issues and women need and deserve more voice in setting local priorities.”
The report has also highlighted that the most common obstacle to women’s voice in local government is that among the very few female matai living in villages, even fewer sit in the village councils.
This form of exclusion, according to the report, is very difficult to quantify because it may not be formally articulated, but is more of an unspoken norm.
“A common justification is that when men jest together women cannot be present because of the customary concept of ‘o le va tapuia (sacred space), an aspect of the covenant of respect between sisters and brothers,” said Leasiolagi.
Leaving aside the question of whether such jesting is appropriate or dignified in village council meetings, it is evident that many believe that women matai would not feel comfortable participating in meetings in most villages.
“Their absence reinforces public perceptions – even religious beliefs – that decision-making is a male prerogative, not only in the village councils, but also in village school committees, and by extension, in national parliament.”
Article 15 of the Constitution of Samoa forbids discrimination on the grounds of sex, but Article 100 provides that a matai title shall be held in accordance with Samoan custom and uses and with the ‘law according to Samoan custom and usage’.
“This law is not defined in the constitution or any legal act,” added Leasiolagi. “However, a Bill to amend the Village Fono Act of 1990 may give village councils legal authority to protect Samoan customs and traditions, and to safeguard village traditions, norms and protocols, and may empower them to define village customs and traditions. Such authority is already invoked by some villages as grounds for refusing recognition to women matai.”
The survey also found that justifications for the exclusion of women from decision-making roles in villages were more frequently based on religious grounds than on customary grounds. Furthermore, according to Leasiolagi, about half of those consulted in the survey considered that the churches are of equal importance to the village councils in local leadership.
“In most other countries the Methodist and Congregational churches have ordained women for many years past, but in Samoa, where these churches are self-governing, the trend has been resisted.”
“The Catholic Church and the Mormon Church are governed in accordance with the centralised organisational rules of their faiths and are not fully self-governing. The Catholic Church does not ordain women as priests, but there is no doctrinal reason why women could not be catechists.”
Among those many challenges that Leasiolagi and the research team have highlighted, the call to address these barriers in the long run is a need. It takes those at the decision making level to act.
“We recommend that the Government of Samoa give further consideration to gender equity in the proposed amendments to the Village Fono Act 1990, and hold further consultations.”
“Whereas in keeping with constitutional provisions (Article 15) for the equality of citizens, and the rights of Samoan families to bestow their matai titles (Article 100), the Village Fono Act 1990 should be amended to include provisions that disallow village councils to discriminate on the basis of sex with regard to the recognition of matai titles or the right of a matai to participate in the village council.”
“The amendment of the Village Fono Act 1990 should include provisions requiring village councils to formally consult with the daughters of the village and the Faletua ma Tausi on the formulation and provisions of village council policy (faiga fa’avae) and on the establishment of procedures to be followed in making village council decisions (i’ugafono).”
“The amendment of the Village Fono Act 1990 should include provisions that village council policy (faiga fa’avae) and procedures be followed in making village council decisions (i’ugafono), and include the provision that the president of the village women’s committee and/or the village women’s representative (Sui o Tama’ita’i o Nu’u) may directly represent issues and concerns of the village women’s committee to the village council at its meetings, rather than indirectly through the village representative (Sui o Nu’u).”
“We also recommend that the Churches of Samoa, through the Samoa Council of Churches, and within the respective established processes and procedures of each Church, consider ways and means to formally remove leadership barriers in the Church based on sex.”
“Give women more voice in the government and leadership of the Church at village level and increase Church leadership towards ending family violence.”
Other members of the research team also include Measina Meredith, Muagututi’a Ioana Chan Mow, Penelope Schoeffel, Semau Ausage Lauano, Hobert Sasa, Ramona Boodoosingh and Mohammed Sahib.Leasiolagi Dr Malama Meleisea during the report launch: Giving more women representation in politics. (Photo: Tuifao Tumua/NUS Multimedia Unit)
Australia’s High Commissioner to Samoa, H.E. Sue Langford, Minister of Communication and Information Technology Hon. Tuisugaletaua Sofara Aveau and NUS Vice Chancellor and President, Prof Fui Tu’ua Ilaoa Asofou Soo.