Pioneering the Women’s Movement in Samoa

June 28, 2022

She’s a legend in the women’s movement in Samoa, an influential member of the Vailele Council of Women, and a proud mother of two. She’s a former Assistant Chief Executive Officer for the Programs, Training and Community Development Division of the former Ministry of Women Affairs. Palanitina Tupuimatagi Toelupe, at the national and community level, pioneered the domestication of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). She continued to hold the same senior executive management role for the then newly set up Division for Women under the revamped Ministry of Women, Community and Social Development. She then moved to the Ministry of Health to take up the Chief Executive Officer position, and later, the Director General of National Health Services post. Palanitina is a deacon for the Vailele Congregational Christian Church of Samoa, a Director on the Board for Land Transport Authority, and continues to shape women’s development in Samoa as a technical consultant, under which falls her recent work on the ‘contextualization’ of the Spotlight Initiative’s gender-responsive budgeting initiative.

The gender equality trailblazer shared with UNDP how her partnership with UNDP, through the joint European Union and United Nations Spotlight Initiative, has impacted the work of women’s movement in Samoa.

Reflecting on the experience that has been and is particular to her work with the Samoa National Council of Women (NCW), Palanitina said: “I am their technical advisor, I am tasked to ensure programmes are developed and implemented, as well as ensure these programmes enhance and advance the capacity of women, not only traditionally but technically as well.”

Palanitina’s involvement with NCW is a natural progression. In fact, she regards it as more of a calling: ‘’Our grandmothers and mothers were part of this movement, so naturally we would be too. The NCW is the longest non-government women’s movement in Samoa. In 2015, I was recruited to design and support the implementation of the institutional revival of the NCW, with a constitutional focus on local governance by advancing women’s leadership skills in political and public life. The institutional strengthening initiative focused on the women members of the council. In the same year, the NCW received financial support to implement across 40 villages in Samoa, a grassroots advocacy campaign to prevent violence against women and children. I was tasked to integrate the two programmes, build the leadership capacity of women and through good governance they will be able to advocate for the protection of women from all forms of violence. These leadership characteristics are linked to women’s traditional roles as the daughters of the village, wives of high chiefs and orators, and wives of untitled men. These gendered roles are integral when it comes to local governance and development in their families and villages.

It is envisioned that empowering women with leadership skills through family and village welfare activities for example, is the pathway to the betterment of women’s lives. That has been the technical coherence and integration approach with programmes I was fortunate to support NCW with. The NCW is also privileged to have been given support from AusAID, and the EU and UN Spotlight Initiative to end violence against women through UNDP and UN Women.”

Palanitina regards her role as Technical Assistant as critical in ensuring linkages are made, and that all these projects are integrated.

“With the Samoa Spotlight Initiative through UNDP, the assistance was quite substantial. We were able to train 10 NCW women each from seven villages in Savaii and 10 NCW members in eight villages in Upolu. We trained more than 300 women. The trainings incorporated concepts of transformational leadership with the principles of Spotlight: Leaving No One Behind, Do No Harm, gender transformation, informed by local context and ensuring that through the village women, they can identify the women who have fallen through the gaps.

We explained the purpose and outcomes of Spotlight and emphasized it was not only about domestic violence prevention but being able to target and identify those who need it most. It was extremely important that the language and training content was unpacked and tailored to suit the community women, otherwise it is easy to get cross cutting issues overlapping with each other and then application becomes difficult.

Naturally, in the village setting, it is the older generation of women who attend the trainings. A strategic call went out to the women’s councils that it was mandatory for participants to have a young woman and an untitled woman that is married into the village (nofotane). Through the training of the 10 women from each village, we were then able to pair them up after the training, the older women from the initial training and the younger women having come in for the first time. There were five pairs in each village, and they were tasked to do five informal conversations on any issues that relate to domestic violence, whether it be alcohol use, family harmony, family dynamics, relations, or poverty, they were encouraged to talk about it. The women were tasked to facilitate conversations that would concentrate on primary prevention. The important thing was to remind the women that they are not qualified trained specialists, but they were qualified mothers. And their conversations had to be done from a maternal approach, or a woman approach or a sister approach.

It was important that with all our singing from Spotlight at the national level, that we reach the nofotane woman (married woman living with husband), the woman with disability or the fa’afatama woman (woman who identifies as male), and that the villages know.

The results of the women’s advocacy within their own villages triggered conversations and what came through their sharing with me was that the women were picking up a whole lot of problems that would not have been forthcoming if they were invited to attend a forum, symposium, training, or national conference. People were starting to warm up to the idea of having someone to talk to. And they were starting to converse about the differences they were having as couples, problems they were having with children, children who said parents had too high expectations, and problems of children not wanting to go to church, and not believing in the church, that it was helping them at all. Somehow, the conversations achieved the purpose that we planned for; what we wanted to do was take the women back to basics and start from basics, even if the basics mean having difficult conversations. The basics are community conversations which are focused on primary and primordial prevention. What is good continues to be good and what is bad, they can do something to address it.

The women were encouraged to use their roles as daughters of the village, and wives of paramount chiefs and orators to continue to have a say, as that is the pathway to village governance. It was also strategic to engage the women village representatives (Sui Tamaitai o le Nu’u), as she has a spot in the village council and an opportunity to speak, being the intermediary between government and the village in relation to matters pertaining to women and children’s development. The women advocated through this movement and presented requests directly to the council of chiefs that there be an in-house village policy to address domestic violence and ban domestic violence. Women have reported that villages like Vavau, Siutu, Vailele, Taga, Asaga, Samatau, Siumu i Sisifo and Faleapuna have now adopted anti domestic violence or intimate partner violence policies and interventions.”

Palanitina believes the support for continuity of programmes must be ongoing, as well as the mentoring and capacity building for women council members. The work of building sustainable women leaders and influencers so that it becomes intergenerational must be ongoing and supported by direct access to technical and financial resources. “O Samoa ua uma ona tofi – Samoa has been defined. Therefore, the women in the village are comfortable and happy in their roles as long as we support them in their leadership roles, because when we come away at the end of the day, they still live in the village, still in the confines of the traditional make-up, that should be one of peace and harmony in the village.”

The support for strengthening women’s movement is under Pillar 6 of the joint EU & UN Spotlight Initiative programme. The focus of the Spotlight Initiative is to eliminate violence against women and girls as well as domestic intimate partner violence.

The Samoa National Council of Women is a lead implementing partner for UNDP under the Spotlight Initiative since 2020.


Story by Louisa Apelu

Spotlight Initiative – UNDP Coordinator