Interpretations of tradition hold back Samoan women leaders
Research shows the modern interpretation of some local traditions in Samoa is discouraging women from becoming community leaders.
A new report says the modern interpretation of some local traditions in Samoa is discouraging women from becoming community leaders.
The National University of Samoa report says women are as well educated as but have never held more than five out of the 49 seats in parliament since the country gained independence in 1962.
Associate professor, Penelope Schoeffel, told Daniela Maoate-Cox that Samoan culture has evolved over the past 100 years and people are mystified as to why women remain poorly represented in parliament.
PENELOPE SCHOEFFEL: It's a paradox because in the modern sector, Samoan women are doing really well in education, in management positions, in the private sector, there's very little gender difference but when we look at the leadership roles particularly in the villages there's a huge gender gap.
DANIELA MAOATE-COX: What is it that's creating this gap there?
PS: We surveyed all villages in Samoa, and we also did some qualitative interviews with the village council representatives, and the women representatives and our conclusion was that the problem is basically structural, that there are embedded ways of doing things in Samoan villages and ways of being a leader that make it very difficult for women to stand for parliament, and in fact in some electorates there are villages that don't allow women to have matai titles, and in Samoa if you want to stand for parliament you must have a matai title. So in electorates where women are not recognised by the village, if it's a populous village, they don't have much chance. So that was one of our key findings we also found that very few women, even if they do have matai titles and only 5.5 percent of women in Samoa in villages do have matai titles, but of those that do, very few of them actually sit on the village council for various cultural reasons.
DM-C: Can you expand on some of those reasons why women who do have a matai title do not stand?
PS: Well one of them is just the expectation that village council is an all male operation. There's also some cultural values, for example the concept of the va tapuia which requires sisters and brothers to be very respectful in one another's company and sometimes in village councils, subjects that should not be mentioned in front of brothers and sisters are mentioned and sometimes the matai make jokes that are unseemly for a sister's ear. So that was one of the reasons that was invoked about why it wouldn't be so good to have women in village councils but we think that that is probably more of an excuse than a real reason. The thing is things have been done a certain way in Samoa for a very long time and people are just not immediately ready to change the way that they're being done and our research wasn't to tell people they should do things in a different way. It was to make it clear what the obstacles actually were so that we would approach the issue of how we get women into parliament, we would approach it based on facts.
DM-C: What kind of response have you had to this report?
PS: People are a bit sceptical about how quickly these things will change. One of our major recommendations was that since parliament is currently looking at the Village Fono Act, this is a piece of legislation that gives legal recognition to village council, and we were pointing out that since amendments to that bill are now before parliament being considered, that one of the things that they could include in the amendment is to ensure nothing in the amendment contravenes the constitution of Samoa and the constitution of Samoa provides for gender equality. Apparently the Prime Minister, when this was being debated in parliament, made some dismissive remarks about our research saying it was stupid and there were errors in it, so the director of this project, Leasiolagi Malama Meleisea, has responded fairly openly to that criticism.
DM-C: Why is it so important to boost numbers of women in these positions?
PS: It's because Samoa is a signatory to CEDAW, that's the Convention for the Elimination for all forms of Discrimination Against Women, and the Samoan government has been a signatory to that convention for quite a long time and it takes its commitment to the convention quite seriously.
Penelope Schoeffel says village governance is essential to Samoa's political stability but there are still some hurdles to overcome for women leaders.
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