Nicknamed the “Cradle of Polynesia,” Samoa made history in its most recent election cycle. After a months-long dispute that took a court ruling to determine the winner, this island located in the central South Pacific Ocean named Fiame Naomi Mata’afa as Samoa’s first female Prime Minister. As head of the new Fa’atuatua I Le Atua Samoa ua Tasi Party, or FAST, Mata’afa won over Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, head of the Human Rights Protection Party, who was the prime minister for 22 years.
The Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP) held the office of Prime Minister for more than four decades, and now Samoa is looking at a new future with the FAST party and Mata’afa as Prime Minister. The FAST Party, created in 2020 as a response to the decades-long political domination of the HRPP. Fiame Naomi Mata’afa’s appointment as prime minister sparks an even larger conversation about Samoan women’s role in politics.
The Pacific region of the world has the lowest amount of female representation in government, and Fiame Naomi Mata’afa is hoping to inspire more women and young girls to involve themselves in local politics. Mata’afa’s upbringing contributes heavily to her passion for politics and women’s representation in Samoa. Mata’afa was born right before Samoa gained independence from New Zealand in 1962, and her grandfather was very active in the Mau, a movement centered around gaining Samoa’s independence through non-violence.
Eventually, her grandfather would go on to become the first Prime Minister of Samoa. Mata’afa also saw influence from her mother who was a Pacific women’s rights activist and brought her daughter to many political gatherings. Her mother would go on to become a Member of Parliament.
To qualify as a political candidate in any capacity in Samoa, one must first be a matai – a respected title meaning chief. These titles cannot pass through inheritance, so when Mata’afa’s father passed away when she was 18, she went to court to claim her father’s title over the claims of others. Named Faime in 1978, Mata’afa became the chief over the Lotofaga village on Upolo, Samoa’s main island.
Men typically hold these titles, but young, unmarried women occasionally have them as well. Mata’afa’s political career skyrocketed following this and at 27, she became a Member of Parliament and has continued to hold this position ever since. Before her victory as Samoa’s first female Prime Minister, she made history when she served as the first female deputy female Prime Minister prior to the recent election.
The Context for Representation and the Election
“At the village governance level, women make up close to 36% of total Matai,” according to U.N. Women. Both women and men serve as ballot chiefs or Matai Polata. Before 1990, when all Samoan citizens gained suffrage, non-Matai could not vote. In 2013, a Constitutional amendment bill passed that required that women fill a minimum of 10% of parliament or five seats. This quota served to increase women’s representation in the Samoan government and people now know it as the 10% act.
Samoa’s most recent election, which ended with Mata’afa’s appointment, came at a time when only 9.8% of Parliament consisted of women. With a 51 person legislature, the HRPP and FAST parties tied with 25 seats each, leaving one independent elected. An additional HRPP-elected woman candidate filled a seat in Parliament to follow the 10% act. The sole independent then ended up voting with the FAST party, creating a locked 26-26 election.
The Samoan Supreme Court reviewed the election, ultimately deciding that the additional candidate that the HRPP party appointed was invalid. As a result, the FAST party candidate, Mata’afa, rightfully won the election to become Prime Minister. While many rejoiced in the celebration of Mata’afa’s victory and appointment as Samoa’s first female Prime Minister, Malielegaoi’s outrage surrounding the decision led to his refusal to step down as Prime Minister. Forcing her swearing-in ceremony to occur outside the locked doors, Malielegaoi even went so far as to lock Mata’afa and her supporters out of Parliament.
Women’s rights in Samoa have evolved over the past few decades and now the country currently sees about “53% of the total public service” consist of women. In the private manufacturing sector, women also are a majority of the workforce and women own and run more than 40% of small businesses. Management and promotion opportunities for women in the Samoan workforce have also increased over time with chief officer positions and other top leadership roles that women hold.
Fiame Naomi Mata’afa is a role model for young Pacific women. Her political career has broken many barriers that women in the south Pacific region often face. Following in her family’s footsteps, she is working towards a better future for women in Samoa.
– Annaclaire Acosta
Photo: Wikipedia Commons