Commentary: Samoa’s Women's Bill move labelled undemocratic


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01 March 2012

Now the fight’s just beginning. For centuries, Samoa has always prided herself as a country that promotes the role of women as leaders in every aspect of society. Culturally, they are considered the keepers of all that is known as Samoan treasures, its artifacts, culture in entertainment forms and history. Women have always been considered as the peacemakers, the lifeline of every Samoan and the provider for their families.

They are the covenant in which men are supposed to serve and to be treated with utmost respect. They are considered for final decisions if the more aggressive men cannot come up with any solutions. In church, they are considered the right hand of any denomination, their organisational skills are repeatedly praised. In the workforce, women are the implementers, organisers and the support system many rely on. Samoan children are brought up to respect their sisters, it’s a sin if your sister cries repeatedly from your actions.

It’s a picture perfect culture—but take time to explore and you’ll find that perhaps women like the references on them are nothing short of reminiscences of the past.The reality is, while Samoan women have fought alongside their men since the earliest of civilisation as Samoa would know it, and a woman was the first to hold the highest chiefly title of the country at one time, they somehow became second class citizens at one point in history and that history continues. It was when Christianity arrived and brought the notion of men being leaders, saviours and prophets, and men being head of families. Aside from the Mother of Christ and a handful such as Queen Ruth, Queen Sheebah and Mary Magdaline—the role of the Hebrew women was somehow transferred to be the proper role that women in Samoa should follow. The same people who introduced Samoans to clothes, white weddings and a subservient behaviour are now demanding that Samoa changes its way—to suit changes of today—that women are equal to men in all aspects including running the country.

After centuries of what can easily be considered a whitewash of ideas, they now finally see the light themselves and decide there should be more women in parliaments in the Pacific region. For women, it’s a move that will perhaps open the door to so many opportunities that they’ve been deprived of for many years. The recently departed President of the Samoa Umbrella for Non-Governmental Organisations (SUNGO), Vaasiliifiti Moelagi Jackson, summed it up quite well when she told the media last year: “This was a great move…it’s about time that Samoa’s Parliament have more women. “…Parliament needs to run the country from a woman’s perspective…if it was implemented earlier, there would be less hassles as seen there today.” She was amongst many Samoan women pushing the UN resolution in the Millennium Development Goals to empower women. 

One of the empowerment tools is to push more women’s involvement in parliament. To run for a parliamentary seat though isn’t as easy as many think. Many women have tried and failed. The system allows for both men and women who hold chiefly (matai) titles to contest the general elections. The reality is, many years ago, there were only a handful of women matai because the families would prefer men holding these titles.
Recently though, there has been a surge in the number of women holding chiefly titles, hence the increase in the number of women now running for parliament. While this is good news, there is yet another problem: the support from the constituencies. Many villages in Samoa do not allow women to hold chiefly titles still.

There are villages that allow women to hold titles but not to be involved in decision-making within villages or districts.  Many are given titles because they’ve progressed to senior or even chief executive posts within government ministries or corporations and many are now running their own businesses. Again, only a handful of women are able to sit in the village council with men and given the opportunity to make their opinions known as equals to other male matais. In many Samoan villages, there are separate meeting houses, one for men (chiefs), the other for women, and there is also a meeting place for the untitled men and their wives. However, when the village meets and makes decisions about those who live in these villages, women’s views are hardly heard. They only present their development programmes, voice concerns about other women who have misbehaved, but the men make the decisions in terms of support for development projects or punishment handed out to those who’ve been proven to commit against village rules. It’s with this mindset that’s proven too difficult for women as they try to enter politics. A few women get the support of their men chiefs to run for election. The lucky few are backed by the village and then she has another task of convincing the other villages within the constituency to vote for them. Other village councils, despite the law being quite clear about threats during balloting time, continue to hassle voters not to vote for a candidate the council has refused to support.

The Opposition is now raising all these as undemocratic and unfair to men. Opposition Leader Palusalue Faapo II told a media conference recently that at least with the current law, men and women have a level playing field come election time. “Now, women get two chances to win a parliamentary seat than men, see how unfair this is, in fact it’s undemocratic,” he says. Palusalue and other members of the Tautua Samoa insist the government should look into the root of the problem—the village councils rather than trying to change it in parliament. “People’s mindset need to change”.

Obviously in the eyes of the United Nations, year after year reports from Samoa on the progress of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) is quite impressive except this particular part of the MDGs about the number of women in parliament. “In the last government, there were four women Members of Parliament—one in the opposition and three in government,” says Prime Minister Tuilaepa to members of the media questioning his motives behind this amendment. Tuilaepa feels the five seats for women were almost achieved at the time and three of them were made ministers.
The changes promoted by government includes that if a woman competing with a man in one constituency doesn’t get in, her votes will be compared with the votes of all the other women running from other villages for the same constituency. Whoever wins the most votes will get into Parliament.

The Opposition says this is an unnecessary seat created just to suit the UN criteria and this trend will continue until five seats are guaranteed to be held by women. This number, however, will drop if women do win their constituencies during the general election. “Then there is a problem with women winning these seats knowing that the constituency did not choose them but rather a more sympathetic system trying to oblige with the uniformed demands by the United Nations,” says Tautua Samoa. Already there is a move by an organisation made up of SUNGO women leaders to push for more women participation in the 2016 general election. Since Samoa has failed to reach this particular MDG with the deadline being a year before the country’s election, the Opposition says the government is now amending the constitution to assure the UN that changes will be made the following year.

Women advocating the UN advice are happy with the changes and continue to plead with the media for the country to support the change.
 Tautua Samoa is also on the media constantly now pushing that women win these seats by merit and not by favour. Government has the majority to easily pass these changes, but it does so with many opposing it. Tautua Samoa says the country’s parliament will be telling the world that the constitution in which this country was founded was a mistake and the amendment is a way for government to allow foreign policies to run Samoa’s Legislative Assembly, disregarding the culture that sets it aside as unique and most valuable.

[Islands Business March 2012 Issue - Merita Huch

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