Mātua, E amata ia oe Faata'ita'iga Lelei. . .


International Women’s Day 2023

“Embrace Equity”

"Embrace Equity" a personal reflection on what it means for Samoan women.

The phrase “Tell a Woman” is often used as a slang to refer to negative conversations or dialogues among women that have caused conflicts or misunderstanding, either within organizations or amongst women themselves. However, this phrase has been used as a positive hashtag and a title for a well-known project led by women in the Blue Pacific continent. This project is transforming the lives of women in communities, villages and countries, and telling enriching stories of change. Often our women are perceived and treated differently, and can be subject to mistaken judgements.

As this year’s International Women’s Day campaign focuses on the theme “Embrace Equity” it is important to take pause, analyse and consider both sides of the issue. The theme can be translated as a call for humanity to talanoa about not only gender equality, but gender Equity as well. A dialogue to examine why equal opportunities are not always sufficient for achieving a holistic and contextualized analysis of gender equality. Equality does not translate into Equity. The theme also serves as a timely reminder to policymakers, leaders, academia’s, policy analysts, programmers and everyone else that equality and equity are interconnected concepts. This brief is a personal reflection on this year’s theme, a contextualized view based on the writer’s academic background and experience of what the theme means for her as a Samoan woman.

As the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) for the Ministry of Women, Community and Social Development (MWCSD), I often face the question of why our ministry’s name excludes men - “you are advocating for gender equality and social inclusion but the name for your Ministry is missing the men – Where are the Men?” I am not ashamed to state the fact that the name wasn’t an illusion nor a coincidence rather a decision founded on a deep rooted vision and what I would call a God given wisdom to our women leaders and forefathers who have fought and have lead this pathway that a tamaitai Samoa like myself has inherited. A decision based on a firm understanding of both equality and equity, recognizing the importance of our women accessing equal opportunities as our men, but equally important, acknowledging that men and women in Samoa face different circumstances. Although there is a cultural ideology that there is no gender inequality in Samoa, the statistics reveal a different reality in many areas. Therefore, if we are genuine, then Equity is the process of achieving equality through resource allocation and opportunities.

The priority on Ending Violence for Women and Girls for instance, is a result of the alarming statistics indicating that more women are at a greater disadvantage and are more likely to experience physical, emotional and sexual violence from their own husbands, fathers or male caregivers. The 2017 Family Safety Study revealed that 60% of women have experienced violence, a significant increase from the 40% recorded in the 2000 Family Safety Study conducted by WHO, UNFPA and the Government of Samoa. Embrace Equity in this context in my view means recognizing, as a country, we need to acknowledge and understand that men and women have different needs and aspirations. Our men are perceived as heads of their families and may not be however they need to embrace an equal opportunity to understand, communicate efficiently and to be open minded perhaps more patient and understanding of the diverse circumstances experienced by their female counterparts.

The prioritization of Women in Leadership for instance is also recognizing the unbalanced representation of women in leadership positions in Samoa. I for one have always argued that the current indicators and formulas used to measure the current situation on women in leadership positions in Samoa needs to be contextualized to accurately reflect the truth about Samoa’s culture and practices. After gaining independence from colonial authorities in 1962, Samoa integrated the matai system, into its governance structure, creating a unique form of the Westminster system. A democratic unitary national legislature (the Fono) is complemented by local level village councils (fono) comprised of matai (chiefly) title holders. The Samoan constitution limits eligibility for political candidacy to matai title holders only. Women hold approximately 12 percent of matai titles (Samoa Bureau of Statistics 2018) and while the number is growing, some villages still prohibit or strongly discourage women from becoming matai (Haley et al. 2017; Baker 2018). Analysis of gendered barriers to participation in politics quite rightly place firm emphasis on this cultural ‘barrier’ or the requirement for aspiring candidates to hold a matai or chiefly title as the key limitation on women’s participation in politics (Meleisea et al. 2015).

Encouraging women to enter politics and take up matai titles is a common strategy to address the gender imbalance in leadership positions in Samoa. However, this requires working through gendered notions of who is the right person to take up a matai title and who is the right person to serve. To secure political candidacy, matai must receive signed endorsement from the nearly exclusively male fono that of their service or monotaga to their village (Meleisea et al. 2015). To enter the space of the fono in the first place requires significant courage to push gendered boundaries (Tuuau and Howard 2019). While many women have sought to improve their status through secular and political forms of authority through the matai titles, many have resisted this domain as outside of women’s interests and aspirations. Encouraging women to stand for politics therefore is not merely enhancing women’s political aspirations, but also about understanding the deep-seated ideological foundations and distinctions between political, secular and spiritual service for families and communities.

In my opinion, the concept of Embrace Equity in Samoa has suffered for a long period of time because the dialogue in this space has often been dominated by western scholar’s perspectives, both men and women. Even later, internal insights were influenced by Samoan educated men who based their views on their positions as the male pule. Samoa has adopted models for Women in Leadership written by Europeans which focuses on closing the gap on the numbers. Now our women are vying for chiefly titles. Unfortunately, as a country we have not thoroughly examined and analyzed our own context to develop a relevant model that articulates our unique understanding of equality and equity. Dr. Rev. Latuivai Kioa in an informal talanoa states – Embrace Equity in the Samoan context is –

“E le o se fautasi poo se paopao (e fai sina ama) a'o le 'alia (e lua ona ta'i). E fanau mai ai le upu Ta'ita'i (dual leadership) i le context a Samoa, E iloa i nuu, o le Nuu o alii ma le nuu o Tamaitai. O le matai-alii e iai o latou Sa'o Tamaitai. O Samoa, o le Sa e Tautai – lua” Dr. Rev. Latuivai’s view is that if we don’t embrace our cultural identity/relations. If we do not associate or connect to these, there is no equity.

To delve deeper into the theme “Embrace Equity” in the context of Women in Leadership, I firmly believe that we must revisit our Samoan identify, customs, and our ways of being and knowing. This prompts the question, should our women persist in pursuing chiefly titles, or shall we look to recognize the value of leadership and service by women through the Sao Tamaitai title as a pre requisite for political candidacy. Should we rely on indicators based on numerical metrics or cost-effectiveness, or should we delve deeper into our culture and practice to inform these measurements? Perhaps the current low representation of women in the parliament house does not fully reflect their role as the backbone of family and village development, a more comprehensive and contextualize analysis is needed.

In the realm of sports for instance, it is common knowledge that this is a male-dominated arena but Women in Sports are making strides. The few women who are successful and are bringing about transformative changes in gender equality in the sports arena are women with supportive fathers or male mentors. They recognize the potential of women to succeed as sports champions despite the gender differences.

If we look into the maritime, fisheries and agriculture there is definitely inequality in numbers and inequity in terms of remunerations. We look at the development of our families, villages and communities our women are producing wealth, nurturing children, entrusted with the church development, basic health and sanitary measures in the villages. The concept of true voluntarism exists and continues to be practiced through the roles of women. Are they compensated accordingly? For so long Samoa hasn’t costed the domestic contribution of our mothers, grandmothers and aunties.

To me, Embrace Equity means, when we say, write, talanoa about it, we are delving deeper into our cultural values, recognizing them, and embracing them because this will foster an equitable dialogue that we can wholeheartedly believe in.

On this International Women’s Day, I extend my appreciation to all the mothers, aunties, and grandmothers past and present, who have paved the way for us through their tireless efforts.

  • By: Dr. Mema Motusaga