Samoa's first woman Prime Minister are the 'gals'

UN Women reports that there are less women in politics in Pacific Islands than anywhere else in the world.

Samoa's first woman Prime Minister are the 'gals'

UN Women reports that there are less women in politics in Pacific Islands than anywhere else in the world. However, Samoa elected a woman to head its government this year - the second Pacific Island nation to do it - partly thanks to the support of her network of women friends.

"This is the margarita round," Samoa's first female prime minister says while raising a cup with salt. It's a place to confess your truth."

Her friends raise their glasses.

"Manuia!" They reply, "Manuia!"

It's Sunday afternoon, and around 10 people have just left the village's church to meet for lunch at Fiame Naomi Matafa's family's Lotofaga village home.

Just beyond the white sand, you can see the clear South Pacific Ocean.

"Do you recall how this particular journey began for us?" Tauiliili Alise Stunnenberg is an independent tourist consultant and Fiame's distant cousin.

The prime minister replied, "It was just more than a year ago."

Fiame Naomi Matafa, deputy prime minister of Samoa's Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP), resigned on 11 September 2020. She objected to controversial plans to abolish the right to appeal against rulings by a Samoan traditional court that deals with land ownership and chiefly title matters.

The Samoan's most senior female official said to the media that she was concerned about the country's "slipping away from the rule the law" as she left office.

She went to her friend's house the next day for their "Foodie club" evening. This is when a group or friends go out to eat at a restaurant together, or make a meal for each other.

Alise recalls, "As she came in we began playing the Helen Reddy song I Am Woman – Hear Me Roar." "And we said, ‘It's now for you to take control.'

"Give me some time, I just resigned!" Fiame replied.

She would win enough seats within nine months to become the first woman head of government on the Pacific Islands.

Naomi Mata'afa's father was one of Samoa's most senior chiefs. He was also the first prime minister. This man led the country to independence in 1962. Her mother was a member in parliament, and later Samoa's High Commission to New Zealand.

Fiame was born in Apia and grew up there. She would visit Lotofaga often with her family. People fished by the moonlight from thatched-roof homes along the coast. Fiame remembers it as being as bright as day.

She says, "It was magic."

She adds that "most of those people have moved to higher ground away from rising sea levels." "Most villages in our area are located along the coast, and people are moving to higher ground."

Some Pacific Island countries have seen sea levels rise at four times the global average rate. Extreme weather events are increasing in frequency due to climate change.

Fiame states that the Pacific Islands contribute less to carbon emissions than the rest of the world and are most affected by climate change.

She moved to New Zealand at the age of 11 to attend boarding school. She recalls her parents making an effort to watch her sporting events and tease about her swimming skills.

Naomi Mata'afa, then 18, died in 1975. His chiefly title was Fiame. She was now the leader or matai of her clan.

Alise Stunnenberg: "I recall asking her how she felt then with this sudden burden of responsibility now thrust upon her." Fiame responded, "It's always in me."

Fiame, realizing that her parents' path in national politics was her destiny, moved to Lotofaga after her return from New Zealand.

Fiame says that the Faa Samoa (Samoan culture, customs) revolves around rural communities' matai framework. "And I wanted understanding those leadership structures and how decisions at the local community level are made."

She would spend her spare time at Lotofaga's beach shore talking to the fishermen, a majority of whom were women, about their concerns.

Fiame claims that many of these were related to "their journeys as women, which included cultural, biological, and political aspects".

She entered politics in 1985 and was the first Samoan woman to be elected as a minister of cabinet.

Fiame and her friends attempt to see one another a few times per month.

Nynette Sass is a Samoa woman in sport chair and a businesswoman. She says, "We do many activities together; salsa and cooking and supporting each others' work."

"We all have our careers, but we are there for one another." We were there for Fiame after she resigned from her position as deputy prime minister.

The group formed a united front, officially calling themselves Friends 4 Fiame.

They discussed Fiame's future political prospects over dinners at their homes or drinks at a nearby bar. They told Fiame that it was time to consider the highest-ranking office in the country.

When Fiame, Samoa's opposition party Faatua i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi (Fast) decided to run as Prime Minister in 2021, her friends jumped into action.

Friends 4 Fiame, a coalition of Fast party campaigners and Friends 4 Fiame, helped organize a national roadshow in order to reach rural voters.

It was all a learning process. Alise says that her friends are political virgins.

Fiame says, "It was funny to watch the reactions when these good-looking, glamorous women, my close friends, showed up with me at village council meetings with male leaders and chiefs of religion," "The men sat straighter when they arrived."

The women organized a series talanoa, a form of inclusive dialogue that is Pacific Island-based. They encourage people to not hold back and encourage them to speak out.

Fiame says, "We have a rich Oratory culture in Samoa, where elders or chiefs (mostly men) speak to the community. But this was to include all, especially younger women."

It was encouraging to see the support that younger women gave for the idea of a female Prime Minister.

Samoa's election results of 9 April 2021 were close. 25 seats went to the HRPP (which had been in power for almost 40 years) and 25 to the Fast party.

Fast was supported by one independent candidate. However, the election commission found that only 9.8% were women and they appointed an additional female MP from the HRPP party.

Things got very chaotic. Fiame was sworn into parliament after Fast was ruled by the Supreme Court. She discovered that Fast had been locked out of her home by the HRPP. Fiame's rivals claimed it was illegal.

Samoans also asked Siri and Alexa their prime ministers as they were being tried in court. They posted the videos on social media. Even the voice assistants didn't want to get involved in the political crisis and named both candidates.

Only 23 July saw the end of the impasse when Samoa's appeal court ruled Fiame the legitimate leader and declared that the creation of an additional MP was unconstitutional.

We wish Fiame a happy birthday from Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand and Scott Morrison from Australia. Then came the resignation of Tuila'epa Sa'ilele Malielegaoi who has been Samoa's prime Minister since 1998.

Lagipoiva Cherelle Jackson, an independent Samoan journalist, says Fiame was calm during the constitutional crisis and did not attack her opponent in media.

"It was almost like she didn't care about the frivolity and grasp for power of her opponents."

Fiame said that Samoa was a family to the BBC. I'm not concerned. It will all be fine and we will find a peaceful way.

The Pacific Islands are home to the lowest percentage of women in politics. On average, only 6% of MPs in the world are women. Three countries - Micronesia, Vanuatu, and Papua New Guinea - have no women elected to parliament.

Fiame is the second-elected woman leader in the region, after Hilda Heine (presidency of the Marshall Islands 2016-2025). Political watchers say this is a subject of intense, often harsh scrutiny.

Lagipoiva Cherelle Jackson, a journalist, says there was a flood of "vile" and "ugly gendered trolling on social media. It seemed to be centered on Jackson's status as an unmarried female.

She says that people questioned her sexuality, and leaders made veiled comments about her marital status and the fact that she doesn't have children.

Fiame claims she doesn't dwell too much on it.

She says, "Hopefully they'll stop asking these kinds of silly questions."

There were also legitimate concerns about Fiame's leadership style for women.

For example, she has appointed a man as minister to women.

Fiame responds to a question: "I don’t necessarily have a problem when men are ministers for women’s issues – in fact, I believe I’m the only female Minister for Women in Samoa. We have so many men in politics - long as they’re able recognize the policy needs."

Samoa ranks 97th on the UN's Gender Equality Index. Gender-based violence is a significant concern. UN Women reports that 46% of Samoa's women have experienced intimate partner violence, but the country only has one shelter for women.

Does this mean violence against women will not be a priority for the government?

"We have a small economic, we must pay for health, education and so on. So where can you get additional money for social protection?" Fiame replies.

"We need to find strategies that we can partner with our village councils, and our non-governmental organizations to start to address these issues. The government doesn't have the resources.

"It's not a question of priorities. It's just about scarcity."

Fiame is less able to cook for her friends these days, but she still does the dishes. They often discuss women's issues when they meet.

Lauano Lauina Grace is an architect and one of Fiame’s closest friends. "Women aren't allowed to take a title as matai so there's no voice."

Only a matai, a leader of a clan or family in Samoa can be elected to the Samoa parliament.

Lauina states, "We need to step out of our comfort zones and consider what we can do in order to hear that voice."

Alise Stunnenberg agrees. She says, "It might be time for us start looking at how we can help improve the status of and livelihoods women in our country."

The government could be planning to launch initiatives by 2022, according to some reports.

Fiame faces many more challenges, including continuing advocacy for global funding for climate change mitigation and reviving Samoa’s economy. Samoa (which was Covid-free) shut down its borders as soon as the pandemic was declared.

Fiame refers to them as "gals" and they will continue being a huge help.

She says, "They are not my shadow cabinet but I value their opinions on issues."

Alise says, "We are not an organization and we're certainly not a registered charity. We're a support network." Alise says, "Every powerful woman requires a support network of powerful women."

Reina Vaai did additional research

BBC 100 Women annually names 100 inspiring and influential women from around the globe. Follow BBC 100 Women on Instagram and Facebook. Use #BBC100Women to join the conversation

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