Samoa Elections: Slow Advance for Women

In elections on March 4, Samoans showed their resounding support for the governing Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP). Under the leadership of long-time Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, the HRPP won 44 of the 49 seats in parliament. Among those elected only 4 are women. Leaving little room for opposition, these elections demonstrate that barriers still exist for women to enter parliament. This International Women’s  Day, we consider the slow advancement of women in Samoan politics.

The number of women running for parliament has fluctuated over the past 3 elections, in part because of discouragement after only a few women have been successful. In 2006, 22 women candidates ran, and 3 served as cabinet ministers.   The 2016 election saw the most women run for parliament in Samoa’s history (24). Nonetheless, only 4 were elected. Thanks to a 2013 law mandating 10 percent of parliamentary seats be reserved for women, a 50th seat will be created for the losing female MP candidate with the most votes. Compared to the previous election in 2011, the large number of women contesting the election has been seen as a small victory.

Gender quotas for Samoa’s parliament may help to normalize women in politics over time, but are not a singular solution. Quotas are intended to be a fast-track way to ensure women’s perspectives are heard when they might otherwise be left out. While they are not effective in all countries, quotas have been successful in Rwanda, India and Norway, among others. In addition to the gender quota, Samoa should look to its other cultural traditions that hamper women’s participation.

There are no legal barriers to entry for women to become an MP in Samoa. Yet, traditional cultural and institutional barriers still exist. Samoa only achieved universal suffrage in 1991. Prior, matai (chiefs, or family heads) were the only members of Samoan society who could vote. While everyone at least 21 years of age can now vote, matai continue to receive favoritism because they are the only ones able to stand for parliament. In a country of almost 190,000, there are more than 16,700 matai, but only 923, or 5.5 percent, are women. The need for MPs to be matai is related to Samoa’s tradition of customary land, whereby matai are the administrators of the family property.

On a more local scale, villages in Samoa have a women’s committee representative to liaise with the government on issues related to women and children. For development projects, organizations like the United Nations have used these committees to facilitate early detection of non-communicable diseases. These institutions provide pathways for women’s involvement in formal politics, but also reinforce traditional gender roles. For example, Prime Minister Tuilaepa has previously reminded women seeking to enter government not to neglect their “God-given” duties as mothers. These roles and pressures from Samoan society hamper women from going further in their political quest. 

After the 2016 elections, Samoa is basically a one-party state, but there are signals that a wider public voice is needed. The most candidates in the country’s history ran as independents. HRPP stood 83 candidates, Tatua stood 25 candidates and 63 ran as independents. Opposition Tautua Samoa Party will no longer qualify as a political party, retaining only 3 of its 12 original seats. In addition, its leader, Palusalue Fa’apo II, did not win his electorate. Many independents have been left on the sidelines.

In order to create a vision of progress and connect with the public, the HRPP chose an establishment female to become the country’s new deputy prime minister. Fiame Naomi Mataafa is the longest-serving woman in parliament. She will now hold the highest executive position for a woman in the history of Samoa’s government after 30 years of service. As the daughter of the first prime minister of Samoa, with a mother also a figure in Samoan politics, Fiame should be primed for leadership. As early as 1988 she was the first female cabinet minister, and during the previous term, she was the justice minister.The HRPP has held power since its formation in 1982, and Fiame has been the only woman consistently  part of their rule.

Samoa is not alone in the Pacific for its underrepresentation of women in politics. According to the organization Pacific Women in Politics, “women have never comprised more than 10% of the membership of Pacific national parliaments in Forum Islands Countries since Independence.” Women currently make up 5.9% of total Pacific national parliaments. Perhaps surprisingly, Fiji, one of the least democratically-inclined Pacific Island states, has the most women represented with a total of 8 in parliament. The global average of all elected members is 22.6% women and 77.4% men.

 

Countries Number of MPs Number of Women
Fiji 50 8
Kiribati 46 3
Niue 20 2
PNG 111 3
Palau 29 3
Cook Islands 24 4
Samoa 50 4
Tuvalu 15 1
Tonga 26 0
Marshall Islands 33 3
Solomon Islands 50 1
Nauru 19 1
Tokelau 20 0
Federated States of Micronesia 14 0
Vanuatu 52 0

Source: Pacific Women in Politics

The transition of women into politics in Samoa has been slow, but there continue to be new ways to measure progress. In the first election with a gender quota, it was needed to reach a minimum number of women parliamentarians. The record number of women and independents running shows Samoans’ propensity for change, despite the landslide victory for the establishment party. For Samoa as well as the wider Pacific, new Deputy Prime Minister Fiame hopes to inspire and encourage more women to participate in politics.

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