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Celebrating Samoan women in politics

Published on 24th August 2016


Samoa held a general election this year in March, electing its first woman Deputy Prime Minister and three other women MPs. UN Women/VSA volunteer Ellie Van Baaren delivered media training to journalists and candidates in the months ahead of the election.

 

Samoa's Deputy PM Fiame Naomi Mataafa

Samoa's Deputy PM Fiame Naomi Mataafa (left) with VSA volunteer Thoraya Abdul-Rassol (right) on International Women's Day 2016

In March 2015, UN Women and UNDP in partnership with the Samoan Government launched a programme to increase women’s participation in politics. The Pacific has the worst rates of female participation in government in the world – just 5.5% of parliamentary seats are held by women in the region (not including New Zealand, Australia and the French territories).

 

As well as talking to professional media, we also targeted journalism students, many of whom would be filling senior positions in the local media once they graduated at the end of the year, five months before the election. We ran a four-day training course with them, partnering with the National University of Samoa Media and Journalism School, and we also did training for NGOs around using social media for advocacy.

 

This was the first election in Samoa since a constitutional amendment reserved 10% of seats for women (five seats of the 49). If fewer than five women were elected outright, the rest would be filled by the quota.

 

Our goals were to support the media in profiling female candidates, and, in doing so, support wider, more inclusive definitions of what leadership looks like. In Samoa, there is still a very masculine view of public leadership roles. Only 10% of Matai (chiefly) titles have been bestowed on women, and candidates have to have a Matai title.

 

As part of the training we pointed out that gender equality wasn’t about making women and men the same, but rather about ensuring everyone has equal access to opportunities and resources; something that turned out to be a lightbulb moment for many of them.

 

The Samoan media produced some great examples of gender-sensitive coverage. To recognise this and encourage further such reporting, we held media awards, awarding seven journalists and media outlets for their efforts.

 

Overall, the number of female candidates standing for election tripled when compared to 2011, and four women were elected as MPs, double the results of the last election. A fifth was added through the quota, the first of its kind in the Pacific. It was a source of interest to Pacific countries that continue to have low numbers of women elected to parliament.

 

Education and training are important building blocks but they can’t work miracles on their own. The attitudes, stereotypes and norms that work against women being elected to leadership roles have been developing for generation, and it will take a lot of time and collective efforts to break them down. Every step towards gender equality is significant and we need to make sure we highlight the successes as well as the continuing gaps – there is still so much to do.

 

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