Samoan women need to find their voice on family violence

Women victims of domestic violence asking for mercy to be shown to their husbands when facing criminal charges must be taught to be less dependent on men, Supreme Court Justice Mata Keli Tuatagaloa has said.

Samoa's first female Judge says countless women appearing before her are putting family cohesion above their own safety, regardless of the severity of their abusers' crimes.

“You hear they [perpetrators] are the breadwinner, they have young kids. But that is not a good excuse,” she said, speaking on the sidelines of last week's Women, Peace and Security summit.

“Women are always putting their families first. It’s brave on their side, but then of course if the offending is too serious you gotta lock them up don’t you?”

The Samoa Family Health and Safety Survey 2017 found 60 per cent of women in Samoa have experienced some form of intimate partner violence. That is up 30 per cent from the same survey conducted in 2000.

With the rates of domestic violence increasing, Mata said girls need to be educated from primary school on their right to live free from abuse but also to learn to be independent.

“It’s a dependent mind-set on the men,” Justice Mata said.

“And of course the men like it, that’s a source of control for them.”

She said women need to take up leadership positions in their villages, churches and workplaces. And they often cannot do that if they are putting their families first.

“Leadership starts from within the family, within the village context with culture as the background providing that foundation," she said.

“At the same time, it is a double edged sword. 

“You have the culture that protects you and the culture that breaks you in a sense. It professes to protect you but at the same time it hinders the progress of women to leadership roles.”

Today, Samoa has two kinds of female leaders, Justice Mata believes: traditional, and contemporary. The contemporary women lead in the public service and private sector and their numbers are growing.

The 2016-2017 Public Service Commission annual report found 58.4 per cent of senior positions in Government are held by women.

Women hold just over half of the Chief Executive Officer positions, with Moliei Vaai the latest to join the ranks as the Ministry of Justice and Courts Administration’s first female C.E.O.

And it is those women who can empower the traditional leaders in rural villages to make their mark, Justice Mata believes.

“The impact is from the national level, that is where modern, contemporary women in leadership roles can make that huge impact,” she said.

“We need to bridge that gap between them where the disparity is, which is the impact they make.”

She said women have always been essential to Samoa’s peace and security. They are peacemakers and in the home, and historically held all the economic power too, as the weavers of fine mats needed for trade and exchange. 

“They lead in the families, contribute economically, they have that sacred covenant with their brothers where they are held in high regard and occupy leadership positions within families,” Justice Mata said.

“But when colonisation and Christianity came in, I think the roles were then reversed.”

Also hindering women’s access to leadership is a western view of leadership, Justice Mata suggested. 

The outside world tells women they need to “be vocal,” and “be heard,” but Samoan women lead differently, she said, that instead of being the voice at the front of the room, Samoan women lead by example.

“They tend to be quiet and unassuming but that doesn’t mean their voice is stifled or minimised, or not heard,” Justice Mata believes. 

“It’s simply that their voice is not vocal, their voice is behavioural. We walk the talk.”

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