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Samoan MP Hon. Alofa weighs in on barriers and opportunities for aspiring Pacific women politicians

Wednesday, 17 June 2020

Despite significant efforts to boost participation, the Pacific Islands currently rank amongst the lowest in the world for women's political representation and formal decision-making. 

To unpack this issue, the Women’s Leadership Initiative (WLI) hosted a conversation with the Hon. Ali‘imalemanu Alofa Tuuau, one of only four women elected to Samoa’s National Legislative Assembly in 2016. The fifth woman MP came through the quota system to ensure 10% representation of women in Parliament. 

The conversation (steered by Elise Howard and contextualised with research by Kerryn Baker, both from ANU’s Department of Pacific Affairs (DPA)) shone light on the many barriers, opportunities and lessons learned for aspiring women politicians in the Pacific.

Less-than-average state of Pacific women’s political leadership

According to an evidence-based review of women’s political representation and leadership in the Pacific by DPA Research Fellow Kerryn Baker:

  • The Pacific Islands have the lowest rates of female political representation and participation in the world, with a total of just 6.6% active women (or 33 women out of 497) members of parliament (MPs)
  • Every independent state in the Pacific is under the global average of 25% women MPs
  • The Pacific includes the only three countries in the world with no women MPs; Federated States of Micronesia, Papua New Guinea (PNG) and Vanuatu
  • Worryingly, research does not indicate a gradual increase of female political representation over time, and elections held in 2020 presented little change
  • In non-sovereign states women’s political participation is experienced in some of the highest rates in the world, including New Caledonia (44%), French Polynesia (52%), Guam (66%) and New Zealand; led by female Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

Gendered leadership and pathways to success

While political leaders in the Pacific do tend to fit a certain type of profile, according to Baker, leadership is highly gendered – forcing women leaders to forge their own pathway to political success.

Typical profiles of Pacific political leaders

  • Well and internationally educated and from high profile families
  • Active and respected in local communities, churches, and parliament
  • Masters of formal and informal “rules of the game” – including not only laws and regulations, but how politics is practiced in communities
  • Viewed as credible leaders by their communities
  • In many countries, requirements of political leaders must be met through typically male-dominated contexts, in which women have few or no opportunities to participate
  • Customary religious traditions and rigidly-held gender roles affect political participation – e.g. while Samoan men and women have equal rights to chiefly matai status (a necessity for all Samoan MPs) the expectation of women as caregivers prevents most from participating
  • Leadership qualities perceived to be important for prospective political leaders are typically male
  • Attitudinally, the work of campaigning women – including necessary service to their village before running for parliament – is often unfairly accredited a woman’s husband and family members, rather than her leadership capacity. Many women leaders are therefore widows or married to foreigners, though this trend seems to be changing
  • Women are held to different standards to men (by both men and women), are “put on a pedestal” and “have to do better” than male counterparts
  • There is no one common pathway of Pacific women to political success, so all successful women in Pacific politics have chartered their own course
  • Women leaders need to demonstrate leadership in an authentic way, ensure that work is recognised by not only their community but in politics – building political capital 

Read more insights from Kerryn Baker: Improving the Electoral Chances of Pacific Women through an Evidence-Based Approach.

Hon. Alofa’s political approach and lessons for aspiring women MPs  

Reflecting on her own leadership story, both in the lead up to and since her election to Samoan Parliament in 2016, the Hon. Alofa says effecting real change in her home village on the island of Savai’i drove her into politics. 

Her strong financial management background, perspective on leadership as a service to her community, and first-hand experience of (her uncle’s) matai leadership helped steer her to success.     

And while outlining the many challenges and gender biases experienced by prospective and active women MPs, Hon. Alofa insists opportunities can also arise because of them.

Overcoming barriers to becoming a matai

The Hon. Alofa boasts an impressive career in finance and accounting, working her way up within various local and international government departments, financial corporations and organisations.

And while she had also been leading her family and others in her community for years prior to achieving the matai status required to run for Parliament, Hon. Alofa says her journey to politics was not easy.

Hon. Alofa explains “you need blessings and support” to  a matai and then an MP, but in many ways she “was discouraged to run” based on her gender – even though men and women have equal claim to the matai title.

“When I was brought into the meeting of matais … it didn’t go well … they thought … you are a female, can you do this kind of work? Are you able to speak? They hadn’t heard me speak … which disadvantaged me,” she recalls.

Nine months later, the Hon. Alofa was given the endorsement by her village needed to run for Parliament, and in 2016, was one of four women elected into Samoan Parliament.

When she got to Samoa's National Legislative Assembly, Hon. Alofa says she experienced intimiation, and deeply-held gender stereotypes that influenced roles given to women.

But while her quiet, calm leadership style has been tested, Hon. Alofa believes being her authentic self, focusing on the work and reports, and being open about her weaknesses “so you don’t have to live up to the expectations of others” has helped.

Using gender stereotypes to your advantage

Hon. Alofa reflects on times when gender stereotypes can in fact benefit women in politics, for example, when it comes to assigning report-based roles and responsibilities.

Parliamentary tasks perceived as menial, traditionally low-paid, and ‘better suited to women’, such as the secretary to special committees, Hon. Alofa says, are always delegated to women MPs.

“It’s expected because you’re the only woman there … and I thought, ‘why is it the woman who is always the secretary?’”

But Hon. Alofa quickly realised these situations, while increasing her workload, could work to her advantage.

"I became the secretary on most special committees I'm appointed to... as I type away at the report, if there was a point I really wanted to get across... it gives me the opportunity to try again. Because [as secretary] you end up presenting the report to the committee before reports are tabled in parliament, showcasing that women can really do it."

‘Walk the talk’ and be visible through community projects

To overcome gender stereotypes and build community and political support for women MPs, Hon. Alofa says delivering projects that will benefit the community – year-round, and not just in the lead-up to an election – is vital.

She developed several projects for the betterment of her community, many of whom live on low incomes and have limited employment opportunities.

One was aimed at building the working capacity of young people and encouraged them to save money earned through seasonal work contracts in Australia and New Zealand. 

“A lot of them come back and build houses for their families, some of them have cars, have started businesses … I gave their families a hard talk about not sending them money every month, and I had communicated with their employers to do savings so at the end of the six months … rather than giving them money, there’s now someone in the family who earns a salary.”

Tackling gender-based criticism and stigma

Hon. Alofa says that investing in community builds the critical foundations for women’s political campaigns, helping to reduce stigma and build women leaders’ credibility before they even announce their intention to context an election.

“Rather than directly saying you want to run for Parliament, I started talking about things that needed to be done in the village, in the community, the finances in government, and that’s how the discussion started,” she says.

On changing women’s attitudes, which can be equally unsupportive of women leaders’ non-traditional pursuits, Hon. Alofa says she started joining women’s committees.

Traditionally, male politicians had not done that.  

Once there, she would divert discussions to what was needed to improve the lives and livelihoods of the local community.

Then, she "noticed the negative discussions stopped, and then we started to talk about projects".

Campaigning: Pooling together resources and supporter strengths

While there may be limited financial resources available to prospective women MPs’ campaigns, Hon. Alofa reinforces that women can look to their strengths-base and pool together non-financial resources.

“Speaking the word, promoting that person, and whatever work they can do to promote that a woman can do as much as a man” are a few ways she suggests.

Hon Alofa also says that prospective women MPs should really get together to prepare at least twelve months prior to announcing candidacy to ensure women leaders are strategically visible in the lead-up to as well as during election campaigns.

Using education to solve problems

The Hon. Alofa says that in Samoa MPs typically take on the role of financial supporter to their community members.

Often, that means covering the cost of funerals, school fees, and even electricity bills, often leaving the MP with limited resources.

But Hon. Alofa doesn’t believe this type of financial support helps the community in the long run, and instead works to educate her constituents on exactly how an MP can have greater impact.

“My uncle who was an MP sold his house and was left without a property… because he used his property as security to what the constituency needs … I wanted to avoid that giving, giving, giving, and make people aware of the role of the MP,” she says.

She also takes time to educate people working on development partner-funded projects to ensure they are being delivered to plan, and that funding is directed where intended.

“We had to make sure people in the village were aware of the importance of having those projects done, and that the funds are not used for other purposes, or the donors and partners will not give any more.

“At the end of the project I realised they have a very good financial literacy … it gives me a satisfaction, to share my financial background with people in the village,” she says.

How men can work with and support women leaders

Through her own parliamentary experience, Hon. Alofa reflects that men can create a domino effect of support for women MPs by starting off small, using positive language which then spreads and grows into larger gestures of support.

“It seems to start off first with speaking positive words for women, promoting them, because if they start off, other men will listen and start to experience the beauty of having a different experience from us women to complement whatever work and decision-making they want to accomplish,” says Hon. Alofa.

‘It’s the relationships that matter’

Above all else, Hon. Alofa has learned that building good relationships with other parliamentarians, constituents, and the wider community is vital to the success of all MPs. 

“It’s the relationship that matters, that’s what I’ve learned about MPs in Parliament,” she says.

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The Women’s Leadership Initiative would like to sincerely thank Hon. Alofa for sharing her experience and advice through this Learning & Networking event – open to all male and female Australia Awards scholars from the Pacific. You can view the recording of this event here

Read more about Hon. Alofa’s story in The Long Road to Becoming a Parliamentarian in Samoa: Political Apprenticeship, Learning New Language and Pushing Gender Boundaries.