What U.N. Human Rights mission found about Samoa

The United Nations Human Rights Council Independent expert group recently visited Samoa to assess the country’s performance on the issue of discrimination against women. During their their 10-day mission, the expert group’s delegation, comprised of Kamala Chandrakirana and Eleonora Zielinska, held meetings in Apia, Poutasi, Vavau and attended consultations with representatives of Salani, Sapoe, Utulaelae, Siuniu, Salesatele, Salelesi. 

“One of the most important steps in addressing the root causes of violence against women involves creating a wave of mind-set change with regard to cultural perceptions about women and their place in society,” the group concluded.

The following is the continuation of the group’s preliminary findings following their visit. The first part was published in the Samoa Observer yesterday.

However, in the Government cabinet, there are only two women out of 12 ministers. In the diplomatic service, there are two women heads of missions among a total of six. The 10% quota for the Legislative Assembly introduced through Constitution Amendment Act 2013 is a first step forward but insufficient for women’s meaningful participation, which requires a minimum of 30% representation according to international standards. Samoa still lags behind in terms of the political participation of its women, ranking 161 of 190. 

Nevertheless, women see the 10% quota sending a clear message that the Parliament is not an exclusive ‘men’s club’ and that there is now a place for women in the nation’s legislative body. The impact was immediate, in that the 2016 elections saw record high participation of 24 woman candidates. Though every woman in the country is entitled to vote since the legislative revision, Samoa’s political system reserves the right for political representation in parliament only for citizens holding chiefly titles which remains a male privilege, as only 11% of title holders nationwide are women, of which a significant number live abroad. 

For those women who did run in the 2016 parliamentary elections, they face deeply entrenched political machinery and processes that have served male candidates well over the decades as well as corruption. 

In this regard, unequal opportunity for women remains a structural impediment for women’s full and meaningful participation at the highest level of Samoa’s political institutions. We learned that a mentoring initiative for young women by senior women politicians has been set up and recognizes this as a promising practice in terms of the empowerment of individual women. Policy measures to increase the representation of women at the top decision-making bodies are nevertheless still necessary.

Policy making and implementation in Samoa involves extensive stakeholder consultations, particularly given the deep-seated autonomy of its self-governing villages and the extensive role of the church in all aspects of community life. 

The Ministry of Women, Community and Social Development, which organizes access to villages for all government ministries, is involved in policy making by the various sectors which affect village life and has a mandate for gender mainstreaming across government agencies. The Ministry has also initiated a district-wide development planning process in which 4-5 villages collaborate in identifying issues and concerns, including consultations with representatives of village women, youth and persons with disability. We had the opportunity to observe this planning process and were impressed by the quality of the debates among the stakeholders and the facilitation by the Ministry. We support the scaling up of this pilot project to the whole country as it has the potential to change minds while breaking the isolation of villages in their decision-making.

At the village level, where 80% of Samoans live, women’s participation in political and public decision-making is complex and mainly indirect. Village governance is centred on the village council, whose members are villagers with chiefly titles bestowed by their extended families and they are predominantly men. Among village-based chiefs, only 5.5% are women. Reports indicate 19 villages that ban women outright from village council meetings. The reasons for excluding women have to do with communication practices among male chiefs during the meetings. Our expert group has been told that changing this practice is a gradual process which can only begin in the family, i.e. through the giving of chiefly titles to women. Despite the increasing number of women with chiefly titles over the years, however, few participate actively in the village council meetings. 

Women’s input to the village council decision-making is mainly carried out in an indirect manner through the women’s committees, which hold specialized responsibilities, e.g. for village and home hygiene, maintenance of natural water sources, harmony in the community, pre-schooling and recreational activities. 

This committee has a female representative who is paid by the government, as is the male village representative. However, the woman is paid half the salary of the man, and recommendations have been made to equalize their salaries. We learned that women’s committees are the first responders to domestic violence cases in the village, and that only in special circumstances do they bring these cases to the attention of the village council meetings. We also learned that in a couple of villages, there are bylaws against domestic violence, involving a fine of up to 3,000 WST.

A recent amendment to the Village Fono Act   requests Village Councils to register their bylaws with the national government. There has been cases in which such bylaws have been brought to court for violating Samoa’s constitutional guarantees, particularly in relation to the penalty of banishment and establishment of new churches in the villages and conversations to church denominations outside the village. Our expert group is encouraged that processes of constitutional review towards village council bylaws is possible, as it contributes to the rule of law and enhances good governance. Constitutional guarantees of non-discrimination on the grounds of sex should also be a basis of review for village council bylaws and other policies by local and national government.

We could observe that the participation of urban professional women in village councils contributes to the change of mind-set. However, they need to be supported in order for them to participate meaningful in village life and in order to face at the same time the demands of their professional life. Government policy at the central level, allowing flexible work arrangements, would facilitate their participation. 

Women are playing an important role in each village and should see themselves and be seen as leaders together and alongside with men. We are concerned that villages are deprived of the benefit of women’s unique contribution when they are not directly integral to village governance. 

We were pleased to observe that admirable individuals are driving forces and sources of positive changes in the country, however, with adequate resources and support, CSOs could do more with an independent voice. According to the information received, CSOs working on women’s issues are poorly resourced and require support from various stakeholders. The Working Group was informed that the centrally managed CSO Sector Programme provided funding to few organizations and many interlocutors expressed their disappointment at the lack of transparency of this fund.


Participation in economic and social life

Overall, women’s labour force participation at 26.3% is considerable lower than that of men at 44.1%. Access to job opportunities is largely limited to the urban area. 

Rural women are mainly engaged in agriculture and the informal economy. Though treated as a ‘vulnerable’ group in development planning, women of Samoa, individually and collectively, play a key role in the country’s social and economic life and form nation’s asset for sustainable development. They are in the frontline dealing with issues of health, education, food security, access and quality of water supply and disaster relief management in the life of the village, through women’s committees. Meanwhile, women account for slightly over half of the public service, with an increasing number in decision-making positions. 

The public and private sectors are governed under different legislation: Public Service Act 2004 and Labour and Employment Relations Act 2013, respectively. Social security benefits are available only to the formal sector. Women tend to be in lower-paid occupations such as clerical jobs. It is of concern that they do not enjoy the same legal protection such as the provisions regarding maternity leaves. 

We are encouraged to see that Samoa has extended female public servants entitlement to 12 weeks with full pay, meeting the minimal international standards. However, in the private sector, women can have only 4 weeks with full pay. Paternal leave is only five days and parental leave has not been introduced.

Women head more than 60% of the small businesses. We learned from several interlocutors that involving the family has proven necessary to ensure the acceptance of women’s economic empowerment, including through small business.

Women business leaders has played a central role in making the Samoa Chamber of Commerce an inclusive model for the region, catering for small farmers and business as much as for large corporations.

They have a strong presence both in the staff and in the board. It runs various initiatives for further exploring potential for economic empowerment where there is a strong participation of young women including from the village. In the private sector, women workers dominate the manufacturing sector, although with the closure of the Yazaki automotive wiring plant, some 700 workers, majority of whom are women, will be laid off.   

In the absence of a State-sponsored social welfare system, this function has been assumed by individual families, including by family members living abroad. We were informed that the government is laying the foundations for such a system, by establishing citizen identification cards and improving birth registration through an e-health system which registers births at hospital.

We strongly encourage the government to develop a social welfare system which would go a long way in providing minimum guarantees by the state and help relieve family burden. 

Reliance on remittance for cash flow is high and further increasing. Some 70% of households depend on remittances which constitute 20% of the GDP. The Government seeks to identify areas for employment and entrepreneurship at the village level with foreign assistance. Resource availability is a serious challenge, making international cooperation critical.



Samoa has high literacy rate for both women (98.8%) and men (99.1%). Girls are more successful in school, with less drop-out than boys at the secondary level.  Female students receive 60% of Government scholarships due to their high-level performance. 

Merit-based education opportunities have played a significant role for the advancement of women in all aspects of life. However, the near absence of vocational schools undermines opportunities for employment perspective.

Compulsory schooling in Samoa starts at 5 years old. Currently, pre-schooling is entirely covered by the community. We believe that the State should contribute more directly to the development of pre-schools, including through funding and recognition of pre-school teachers.

Samoa’s ratification of CRC in 1994 has been instrumental in challenging the age-old view around the world that regards children as objects of obedience to be disciplined through physical punishment.

We take note that the government has undertaken legislative and policy measures to ensure compliance with its legal obligations, including making schools a safe environment for children. The Education Act of 2009 requires zero tolerance for corporal punishment in schools. 

However, we are very concerned with reports about plans to re-introduce corporal punishment in schools, allowing teachers to exercise “reasonable force” in extreme circumstances, which would be difficult to be defined and controlled.

Meanwhile, we have learned that effective mechanisms are yet to be put in place to allow effective reporting of violence by teachers, including sexual abuses. We have also learned from various sources that fear of teachers is a reason for students’ absence from school, when schools should be a protective environment allowing the child to reach his or her full potential.  

School plays an important role in breaking pervasive violence in society, if children are taught respect for human rights and the concept of gender equality. Human rights education forms part of the right to education.

Translating into Samoan child-friendly CRC materials existing already in English would be a first useful step. More than two decades after Samoa’s ratification of the convention, and with the near universal ratification of this instrument, cultural relativism can no longer be used to justify violations of child rights. The sad reality of teenage pregnancy (a total of 1,062 girls age 15-19) is a reminder that it is time to ensure that boys and girls receive comprehensive sexual education in schools.

We learned that despite repeated training of teachers through joined efforts by NGOs and government ministries of education and health, sex education is less than comprehensive in the physical education classes where it is taught.

Schools should be a safe place to teach sensitive but important subjects. In the face of rising sexually transmitted diseases and teenage pregnancies, silence is a denial of responsibility. We hope that the current review of school curriculum will address this issue.

We note with concern that pregnant teenagers are often pulled out of schools by their parents. We are pleased to learn of a recent policy of the Ministry of Education on safe schools includes the guarantee of the right to education of pregnant girls and we hope that this policy is disseminated widely across the country, with effective monitoring mechanism for its implementation. We would like to recall that the State has the responsibility to ensure education for all without discrimination.


Access and right to health services

Samoa has developed several strategies to seek and improve the health conditions of women, including a Health Sector Plan 2008/2018, focusing, inter alia, on rapidly increasing levels of non-communicable diseases, reproductive and child health, emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases and disability.

We were pleased to learn that some villages, in particular through their women’s committees, are trying to address chronic health issues like obesity , diabetes and high blood pressure with preventive measures such as the development of vegetable gardens in each households which aim at ensuring a healthier alimentation but also respond to the need to reduce the reliance on imported goods which are extremely costly. 

During our visit, we were informed about the generally limited resources of health care providers, the severe lack of doctors as well as the issue of pharmacies running short of supplies. The district health center  we visited, for instance, covers about 18 000 people, with only one visiting doctor per week and 15 nurses with very limited tools, infrastructure and medicines to perform their duties and respond to the high demand.

We observed with appreciation the efforts deployed to conduct immunisation campaigns, ensure ante-natal care and propose some home care services to the elderly and to people with disabilities at reduced costs. Many regretted however the limited accessibility of such centers, leading certain people, including women, to resort to inappropriate treatments in the villages. 

Furthermore, according to the information received, there are limited State responses to the specific needs of women with disabilities who face multiple forms of discrimination and to mental health issues. We have been told that no professionals in this area can be found in the country. Some stakeholders raised concerns about high suicide rates in the country which deserve continuous attention and adequate responses.

Given the seriousness of mental health and the high demand for counselling services, we would encourage the establishment of a psychology department in the university and develop appropriate State services to address the wide range of needs, including in relation to gender-based violence, alcohol and drug consumption etc. We understand the financial constraints of the country, but additional efforts should be deployed to ensure adequate access to health care as well as to improve comprehensive prevention strategies, data collection and monitoring (no data is available for instance regarding the prevalence of breast and cervical cancers ). 


Sexual and reproductive health and rights

According to the information received during our visit, ante natal care programmes are available in district health centers for 10 WST and some women in the villages are trained to act as midwifes in order to try and find community based solutions to the general lack of health providers. Medicines and any other type of treatment have to be paid separately. According to health professionals met, contraceptives (pills and other devices) are provided for 5 WST, as long as the husband consents through a form.

Minor girls have to be accompanied by an adult. Emergency contraception can be provided under prescription. Some officials confirmed the unmet needs for contraceptives in the country (estimated at about 45%).

Indeed, despite the establishment of the 2011/2016 National Sexual and Reproductive Health Policy aiming at improving family planning in the country, modern contraceptive prevalence remains low (at about 30%). According to the 2014 Demographic and Health Survey, the average fertility rate is rising and estimated at 5.1 children per woman, the highest in the Pacific region.

This increasing fertility represents major challenges for the development of the country, with large families representing a considerable burden for the households. In view of the limited capacities of the state health services, a non-governmental organisation, funded by international partners, is trying to fill the gap in terms of family planning, prevention (including STIs testing) and counselling services. In order to address the issue of accessibility, this NGO reaches out to the villages once a month, via mobile nurses, conducts prevention actions and provides contraceptives for minimal costs (or for free when women cannot pay).

We strongly encourage that such initiatives be adequately and sustainably supported, including to reduce their dependency on international assistance. Furthermore, we call on the government at the highest level to give resounding and public support to the sexual and reproductive health agenda and refrain from undermining family planning.

Our group is concerned at the increased prevalence of sexually transmitted infections (STIs). We were informed about efforts to make condom boxes more available. We hope that the 2017-2022 HIV/AIDS and STIs policy will be duly implemented and accompanied by the necessary actions and resources in order to combat this very acute public health issue. We learned that HIV testing is made available in hospitals for free, but that hospitals sometimes run out of supplies thereby making tests unavailable.

We are alarmed at the high rates of teenage pregnancy (9%), which lead to stigmatisation, exclusion and fines in certain villages. In this regard, we reiterate our view that the Ministry of Education ensure, as a key prevention measure, that comprehensive scientific-based sex education is systematically provided in schools to all children entering puberty, despite the current reluctance of teachers to conduct such courses due to cultural barriers. We also strongly encourage support to initiatives such as the Youth Friendly Drop-in Center which provides counselling services and contraceptives. Given the high rates of teenage pregnancies (higher in rural areas) and proliferation of STIs, such services would be optimal if they could also be provided in rural areas and free from the requirement of the consent of parents..

We share the regrets expressed by some of our interlocutors regarding the criminalisation of abortion which, despite the progressive reform of the law in 2013, is still only permitted when the health or the life of the woman is at risk . Some affirm that, despite being taboo, unsafe abortions do take place via the use of traditional hazardous practices which seriously put at risk the health and life of too many women. This phenomenon not being monitored (because it is illegal) and needs to be better understood and documented. Some of our interlocutors asked for a “wake-up call”, considering intolerable that girls as young as 10 years old as a result of rape having to carry on with their pregnancies. 

As demonstrated by WHO and detailed in one of our reports to the Human Rights Council , adolescent pregnancy has a long-lasting impact on girls’ physical integrity and mental health. Pregnancy and childbirth are together the second leading cause of death among 15- to 19-year-old girls globally, putting them at the highest risk of dying or suffering serious lifelong injuries as a result of pregnancy. Evidence-based comprehensive sex education and the availability of effective contraception are essential to lower the incidence of unintended pregnancy, and hence to prevent unsafe abortions. Indeed, it has been demonstrated that countries where access to information and to modern methods of contraception are easily available and where abortion is legal, have the lowest rates of abortion. As established per international standards, access to termination of pregnancy should be decriminalised, and abortion made available at least in in cases of rape and fatal impairment of the foetus and for pregnancies under 16 years old.



There is a growing consensus among Samoans at the apex of the country’s institutions to those who live at the grassroots of the community that the country is changing. Change is occurring in terms of its demographic profile, the workings of its economy, the kinds of social problems that are arising and spreading, and in the mind-sets of its people. There is a sense of urgency in making the necessary reforms in the nation’s laws, policies and institutions in order to address these changes, while tensions and contradictions in social, cultural and political practice abound.

Samoa has made important strides in developing a legal framework that abide by its own Constitution’s bill of rights and comply with its international human rights obligations, particularly, over the past decade or so, with regard to the elimination of discrimination against women. The criminalization of domestic violence, the legal guarantee of equality between men and women in employment and the constitutional amendment for 10% women in parliament are important milestones. The country is fortunate to have committed and effective individuals in strategically placed institutions as important assets for their implementation and further advancement. 

However, successful implementation of these laws towards the full enjoyment of human rights by all Samoan women requires a comprehensive approach that would include the development of adequate social and economic policies in order to address the root causes of discrimination against women, including gender-based violence, in Samoa. The extensive and multiple efforts by various institutions to document the incidence of violence against women, including in the context of family health and safety, is but the beginning of a long journey of understanding and response.

Ensuring the sexual and reproductive health and economic empowerment of women in Samoa are prerequisites for effective and lasting impact of the country’s good laws on violence against women. Provision of a state-sponsored social welfare system that could reduce the burden of individual families is a long-term but crucial step. Psycho-social support for the rehabilitation of women and girls who are victims of violence, including sexual violence, is a necessary complement to criminalization of the acts of violence against them. Civil society is contributing immensely in terms for service delivery for women and girls in need, but their resource base is small and precarious. Without sustainable financing, from the State, private sector and through international cooperation, these services can only benefit a small minority of Samoa’s women and girls in need. 

One of the most important steps in addressing the root causes of violence against women involves creating a wave of mind-set change with regard to cultural perceptions about women and their place in society. Much effort has already begun on this but major leaps are necessary. Open dialogue on matters deemed taboo and alternative narratives on the meaning of the ‘Samoan way’ need to occur at a massive scale. This cannot happen without the leadership of government and the church, alongside women and men at all levels of society, titled and untitled.

Our findings and recommendations will be more fully developed in a report to be presented to the Human Rights Council in June 2018. 


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