Monotaga scope defined by the village, not Electoral Law

Women who cannot fulfil their monotaga requirements based on their gender are not being excluded from running for Parliament, argues the Electoral Commissioner Faimalomatumua Mathew Lemisio, they simply do not qualify.

A week after the Electoral Amendment Bill 2020 was passed in Parliament, the question of whether removing religious service from the definition of monotaga would exclude women from candidacy if their village customs excluded them from other forms of monotaga.

Faimalomatumua said the law does not define monotaga explicitly and leaves it to each village to define based on their custom, or agaifanua. 

A new amendment, to have two matai serving on the village council and one Sui ole Nuu or Sui ole Tamaitai (village representative) from a nominee’s constituency vouch for any hopeful nominee would ensure the monotaga was carried out in accordance with that village’s custom.

Faimalomatumua said if those mata disagree that a nominee fulfilled their obligations according to their custom, they can declare that to the Electoral Office.

Then, if the nominee disagrees and believes they did fulfil their monotaga by their village’s standard, they can complain also and if found correct, the matai in question are liable to be fined or imprisoned for up to three years. 

“If the woman matai knows that she renders monotaga like every other matai in the village and these guys (matai asked to vouch for her) refuse, we have an avenue for any matai to say ‘if you don’t execute your obligations this is the consequences of your actions,” Faimalomatumua said, referring to the steep penalties.

“That is why we are placing the confirmation of a monotaga on the matais because they know what monotaga is in their own village context.

“If they (the nominee) don’t satisfy that part, they don’t qualify. It’s not being excluded, they just don’t qualify.”

One commonly accepted definition of monotaga is sitting on the village council, a privilege not extended to women in at least 36 villages across Samoa, according to Ministry of Women, Community and Social Development (M.W.C.S.D.) research from 2015.

Since religious service was included in the legal definition of monotaga in 2015 before the 2016 General Elections, it has been seen as another way for women to achieve eligibility for candidacy where they did not have it before. 

But Faimalomatumua disagrees. Because religious service is not compulsory for matai the way village service is, it should not be a qualification for electoral candidacy. 

“You can’t be using church as a ticket into parliament,” he said. 

The newly passed Electoral Act 2020 now defines monotaga as: the compulsory service, assistance or contribution (such as, contribution in form of cash, kind or goods) rendered for customary [or] traditional activities, events, function or similar purposes pursuant to the customs of a particular village.

In 2015, there remained 16 villages that banned women from holding matai titles, M.W.C.S.D. reported. 

Ten per cent of villages (36 total) do not allow their women matai to sit on their village council, and a further 52 villages (31 per cent) have no women on their councils even though they do not ban it, for a variety of reasons.

Asked whether villages should be encouraged to expand their definitions of monotaga if they result in women matai being disqualified for candidacy, Faimalomatumua said absolutely not. 

“You are trying to codify our custom,” he warned.

“For me to say they have to broaden it to address that issue, that would be really rude of me. 

“I am not going to doubt the competency of the matai. These are the people that hold the peace and security of our communities. I am not going to question their integrity.”

He likened the situation to a nominee seeking to stand for a constituency using their religious service only to find the only church in the constituency is of a different denomination to them. 

The law as it stands now is more fair, he said, and the Office of the Electoral Commissioner has a greater role in verifying candidates and clamping down on corruption or sabotage of nominees.

Now, everybody will “get a fair go when it comes time to nominate themselves for elections,” instead of being denied a nomination because the village supported someone else to stand.

“There were issues in the past where Sui ole Nuu deliberately stayed away from executing these forms and prevented candidates from running,” Faimalomatumua said.

Last week, the Samoa Observer revealed that church leadership had petitioned against the amendment but despite two separate petitions with over 1000 signatures, Parliament was not made aware of their concerns before the Bill passed on Tuesday. 

In the petitions, the senior leadership of the Catholic, Congregational Christian Church of Samoa and Methodist faiths called the amendment a human rights violation, a contradiction to the spirit of the Constitution and would hinder women’s participation in politics.

They also argued that service to the church should not be seen as lesser than service to the village.

But Faimalomatumua said leaving religion out of the Electoral laws is not a slight against the Constitution, and that one’s church service is their service to God, not to their community.

“It’s not for you to go into Parliament.

“Your obligations as a matai are to render monotaga in accordance with your village customs and that is the aspect of the culture that is recognised in these laws as a requirement for all candidates.

The Ministry of Women, Community and Social Development has been approached for comment. 

Bg pattern light


Subscribe to Samoa Observer Online

Enjoy access to over a thousand articles per month, on any device as well as feature-length investigative articles.

Ready to signup?