Village service remains a challege for women matai: Professor

Samoa’s new monotaga definition under the Electoral Act could disadvantage women from running for election, gender and Samoan studies Professor Dr. Penelope Schoeffel said.

With the passing of the Electoral Amendment Bill 2020 this month comes a return to an older definition of monotaga, or village service, that does not include contributions to one’s church.

Dr. Schoeffel, who is an Adjunct Associate Professor in the Centre for Samoan Studies (C.S.S.) at the National University of Samoa (N.U.S.) said many women serve their villages by working in their church, and because a majority of women matai live outside their village they cannot do the labour of attending the village committee.

“There is still a feeling that women should not be matai,” she said.

“It is certainly true that many women serve mainly though their work for their church. If she does not sit in the fono, as was the case with many women matai, and does not attend komiti, and if she contributes though other family members, her monotaga may not be recognized.

“Some kinds of service such as the asiasiga or attending komiti can usually only be done by women who live in the village.”

And because women are either socially or practically barred from serving on their village committee, they get very little practice or exposure to village level governance and the rituals and traditions that work entails, and may affect whether their council supports their bid to stand for election.

This was proven in the 2014 study Dr. Schoeffel conducted with N.U.S. about women’s participation in village government.

“Of all matai, women matai living in villages counted for only about five per cent,” Dr. Schoeffel said. 

“The census figure showed that about 11 per cent of all matai were women, so the evidence is that very few women sit in village fono. 

“Furthermore, we found that few women matai in villages sat in the village fono, even when qualified to do so. This was because they felt unwelcome or believed it was inappropriate.”

During the 2016 General Elections, Dr. Schoeffel and her colleague Ruta Fiti Sinclair studied the 23 female candidates and the five women who finally won seats.

At the time, three were sitting Members of Parliament, one was a newly elected M.P. and a fifth earned her seat through the ten per cent quote provision ensuring at least five women (ten per cent of seats) held seats.

“We found that historically, most women who won seats did not have a Samoan husband, most were single, widowed or divorced, or married to a palagi or to a part-Samoan who was not engaged with fa’aSamoa.

 “This confirmed our finding from 2014, that to win a seat you needed certain qualities whether you were a man or a woman [...] holding a high ranking title, being a member of the fono, being well educated, having money to spend, and being a deacon or leader in a church,” Dr. Schoeffel said.

“Far fewer women than men can tick those boxes. 

But the Ministry of Women, Community and Social Development disagrees that the new rules will hinder women from standing for election. 

Chief Executive Officer Afamasaga Faauina Mulitalo said monotaga is about serving the village according to what the village council believes needs to be done. 

Asked whether villages that don’t accept women on their councils, but insist that their monotaga come from a council serving chief might hold women back from running for election, Afamasaga said women should not be held back in this way.

As well as two council matai, the village representative to the Government is expected to endorse a nominee for candidacy, she said, and her Ministry coaches those representatives on their obligations during election time. 

“They make sure that they do that certification to allow the person that is running, including women, to run for parliament,” Afamasaga said.

“I think it something we will continue to talk about during our monthly meetings of Government village representatives, and it something we will remind all our reps, to make sure they are well aware of that responsibility.”

There will also be village level sessions to educate people on the changes to the Electoral laws before the 2021 General Election. 

But she said if it comes up as an issue, there is no reason not to talk more about it with any village who requests for more information or a discussion.

“The key is understanding and having a full understanding of these changes so it’s something we will make sure we do to ensure our communities fully understand these changes before the election. 

She said in the four years since the last election, the number of villages that deny their women matai titles has gone down from around 18 to around 11.

She said the District Development Planning Programme, which brings together village leaders of all kinds, has been a space where the discussion about women matai can be had safely, and she is encouraged by the progress she has seen. 

“We talk about opportunities for women to also become matai and become leaders of their own villages, but we don’t force the villages to do something, we don’t tell them this is what you need to do because that is the prerogative of the village council.

“I am so grateful and I am thankful that some of the villages have actually accepted the changes and decided to allow women to become matai.”

She said it is an evolving issue the Ministry will continue advocating for without pushing villages too hard or fast to make changes.

“We hope and pray that eventually all the villages will allow women to have matai titles and sit in the village council.”

Dr. Schoeffel has been researching and publishing work on Samoa, gender and development since the 1980s, including work on fa’afafine, political representation, gender-based violence and health. 

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