Promising future for women’s political participation in Samoa

International Women's Day celebration in Samoa with the first female Prime Minister, Fiame Naomi Mataafa, hosted by the Ministry of Women and supported by the Women In Leadership in Samoa Project. Photo Credit: WILS Project

Women's political participation is a fundamental prerequisite for gender equality and genuine democracy, hence building women’s agency to take up spaces in leadership and decision-making positions from village to national level is critical for the promotion of gender equality and women’s empowerment.

There is recognition of the untapped capacity and talents of women and women’s leadership exhibited by a change in trend over the last two decades, where the rate of women’s representation in national parliaments globally has seen an increment. Globally, progress has been made to scale up and sustain women’s political participation, but this contribution is still small, slow and uneven. The world over, only 25% of all national parliamentarians are women, up from 11% in 1995 and only three countries have more than 50% women in parliament in single or lower houses, with Rwanda at 61% and Cuba and Bolivia both at 53%.

Talk about women’s political participation immediately fills our thoughts with pictures of empty seats around the decision-making table and the obstacles and challenges women face to get into those seats.

Obstacles and challenges for women in Samoa in their political journey

Local government is based on village councils (fono) made up of chiefs (matai), women’s committees (Komiti o Tina ma Tamaita’i) and associations of untitled men (aumaga). Only matai title holders are eligible to run for elections. According to the 2020 Samoa Voluntary National Review (VNR), 22% of registered matai in Samoa are women. The lower share of female to male matai presents a significant barrier to closing the gender gap in political participation in Samoa. However, there exists strong women leadership in some villages, the traditional village system including the local government councils, church leadership, school management and community-based organizations. The matai system, however, present significant barriers to women’s access and participation in decision-making.

Inadequate financial resources is another obstacle to women’s political participation. To become a matai, one needs to have financial prowess to meet the demands of the chiefdom and financing for political activities during and after the campaigns. Resources most women unfortunately do not have.

Limited skills in public speaking and agency also limits women’s political participation. Most women are not used to speaking in public and asserting themselves in public to demand for space to occupy in the political arena.

A woman’s status and her access to and control over resources are mostly determined by birth order and marital status in the family. High status and respect are given to the eldest female of the family, with the status of the male family member’s wife much lower than that of his sister or their daughter. This tradition further complicates the gendered power relations at the household and village level for both politics and economic empowerment opportunities. In addition, labour force participation is higher for men compared to women: 55% for men and 32% for women. There is a gender gap in unemployment and young women have the highest levels of unemployment at 43.4%.

Unless barriers like conservative social norms and beliefs about women’s leadership at the village level are transformed, and leadership roles become accessible for more women, women’s full political participation in Samoa will remain elusive.

Creating opportunities for women to lead

A 2013 Constitutional Amendment introduced a 10% quota for women Members of Parliament (MPs). Three of the four directly elected women MPs after the 2021 Election are now members of Government (one as the first female Prime Minister and two as Cabinet Ministers, including the first female Minister of Finance), and there is one female MP in the Opposition.

Registering the first female Prime Minister is a key milestone in the journey of women’s political participation. This will likely blaze a trail for more Samoan women and girls to follow, so that within one generation, we will see as many women as men participate and hold decision-making positions in politics, parliament and government, as the norm.

The Women in Leadership in Samoa (WILS) joint programme by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and UN Women, funded by the Australian Government, has played a role in fostering women’s political participation in Samoa. Transformative leadership training at village level was at the heart of this change. Men, women and youth who were part of the Village Leadership Development Initiative noted the impact of their learning on the social norms on leadership and village governance, by fostering insights and understanding of the importance and added value of women having a place at the decision-making tables. This contributed to positive changes and shifts in behaviours, perceptions and long-standing practices, which in turn affected changes in leadership at the individual (for both women and men) and at the community level. In some villages, for example, women married into the village now have a voice and express their opinions, which was a rare occurrence before the trainings, and the sub-village of daughters of the village respecting the views of the in-laws is a clear sign of a mindset shift.

Women candidates in the 2021 General Election acknowledged the usefulness of the WILS village-level and dedicated candidate trainings in transforming their lives and leadership journeys. Twenty out of 23 women candidates for the 2021 Election were supported by the WILS project in the past. This includes all four elected female MPs.

The increase in the proportion of women directors in public sector boards from 24% in 2019 to 33% in 2021, which WILS also supported, is evidence of efforts towards inclusion as well as ensuring boards are representative of women, including young women. This makes Samoa the country with the second highest proportion of women directors and CEOs among the Pacific Island Countries, after Palau. The overall proportion of women on boards in Samoa is well above the regional average of 21%, and women hold 19% of board chair positions, also above the regional average of 11%.

These efforts, coupled with those of many other partners working to promote women’s leadership and gender equality in Samoa, add up to create the space for more women to participate and take agency in decision-making. We need to sustain the progress made and double-down on our combined efforts, until women and men have an equal say on all matters concerning their own lives, communities and country.

As UNDP, we pledge our full commitment to continue working with the Government and people of Samoa and other partners to increase women’s political participation, and promote gender equality and women’s empowerment as a cornerstone for sustainable development, rooted in the principle of leaving no one behind.