19 July 2012
General Assembly

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Committee on Elimination of

Discrimination against Women

1055th & 1056th Meetings* (AM & PM)

Samoa Meeting Obligations while Balancing Position of Women with Gradual Advances

in Political Participation, Delegation Tells Anti-Discrimination Committee

Experts Voice Concerns about Imbalances Leading to Electoral Restrictions

Balancing the position of women in the national culture against step-by-step advances in their political participation, while ensuring that rural women participated in development, Samoa was meeting its obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the country’s delegation said today.

Delegation leader Gatoloaifaana Amataga Gidlow, Associate Minister for Women, Community and Social Development, said Parliament was currently considering a proposed amendment to the Constitution that would set aside a minimum number of seats for women.  For the first time in the county’s history, the question of women’s participation in politics was on the political agenda, she said.  While the proposed 10 per cent of seats did not meet the Convention’s target of 30 per cent women in Parliament, it was nothing less than “a milestone achievement” for Samoa.

Presenting her country’s combined fourth and fifth periodic reports to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women — which monitors the compliance of States parties with the Convention — she said Samoan women occupied a prestigious position in the country’s way of life and were integral to family and community structure.  Their status was determined by that status of their husbands, she said, adding that if the husband was an untitled man whose role was to serve the family, the wife’s role was to support that role, whereas if the husband was a chief, his status translated into respect and status for his wife.

A network of 300 village women representatives enabled the active participation of rural women in development, the delegation stated.  The representatives engaged women and girls in advocacy against gender violence, disaster preparedness and management programmes, school enrolment and vocational training opportunities, improved birth registration for children, and livelihood programmes for unemployed mothers and young women.

The Committee’s 23 expert members sought clarification from the delegation about the participation of women in elections, in the context of Samoa’s chiefly system of governance.  While only citizens with the title of matai (chief) were eligible to contest parliamentary elections, not all villages permitted women to obtain the title.  Pointing out that 80 per cent of the matai were men and only 20 per cent women, they emphasized that restricting women from participating in elections was contrary to the Convention.

Responding, the delegation pointed out the need to move slowly when implementing changes in a traditional culture, reminding the Committee that initially, only the matai had been allowed to vote in elections, though universal suffrage had eventually been extended to all Samoan citizens.  Similarly, women had previously not been interested in becoming matai, but now a growing number of them were claiming the title.  Of Samoa’s 300 villages, only 10 restricted women from becoming matai, the delegation said.  Moreover, a woman from one of those villages had the option of becoming a matai in another village where she had roots or family, and still run for Parliament.  The matai system, therefore, did not prevent women from contesting elections, the delegation insisted.

While Samoa appreciated the Convention’s facilitative role, change could not be forced on the population of the small Pacific island State, with its tightly-knit society, the delegation stated.  In a pre-independence plebiscite, Samoa’s citizens had made the choice to mix traditional and modern systems of government, thereby ensuring that, even while participating in the global family, Samoa enjoyed a good measure of stability.

The Committee will reconvene at 10 a.m. tomorrow, 20 July 2012, to take up the combined fourth and fifth periodic reports of the Bahamas.


The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women met today to take up the combined fourth and fifth periodic report of Samoa (document CEDAW/C/WSM/4-5).

Led by Gatoloaifaana Amataga Gidlow, Associate Minister for Women, Community, and Social Development, the Samoan delegation also included Ali’ioaiga Feturi Elisaia, Permanent Representative to the United Nations; Leituala Kuiniselani Tago, Chief Executive Officer, Ministry of Women, Community and Social Development; Palanitina Toelupe, Chief Executive Officer, Ministry of Health; Leilana Tuala-Warren, Executive Director, Samoa Law Reform Commission; Maureen Francella Strickland-Simonet, Counsellor and Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations; and Ida Tifitifi Fuimaono, First Secretary, Permanent Mission to the United Nations.

Introduction of Report

Ms. GIDLOW, introducing her country’s report, said Samoa’s recent progress in advancing the status of women had focused on strengthening the legal and policy framework, and enhancing collaboration and harmonization with development partners.  A series of legislative reviews, some of which had been translated into Acts of Parliament, had resulted in laws such as the Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Act 2012.  The crimes bill now being translated for tabling in Parliament would provide for the inclusion of marital rape as offence, and for an exception allowing for legal abortion if it was to preserve the mother’s life, she said.  Since 2009, the Cabinet had also endorsed several policies on women, youth, children and persons with disabilities.

She said that in 2009, the Government had received international technical and financial assistance for the establishment of a national human rights commission that would be created in the Office of the Ombudsman to monitor and promote human rights.  Furthermore, three key support facilities had been established, including the Public Sector Improvement Facility, the Private Sector Improvement Facility, and the Civil Society Support Programme, which mobilized financial assistance for various non-governmental organizations and community-based bodies that worked with women.

Turning to the subject of women in political and public life, she said that a proposed amendment to the Constitution, aimed at allowing for a minimum number of seats to be reserved for women, had gone through its second reading in Parliament.  While the proposed minimum of 10 per cent fell short of the 30 per cent target promoted by the Convention, it was still “a milestone achievement” for Samoa, as it put the discussion of women’s participation in politics on the political agenda for the first time.

In the education sector, the Education Act 2009 provided for zero tolerance for corporal punishment in schools, and promoted a violence-free educational environment.  The Inclusive Education Programme funded by the Government of Australia, provided opportunities for girls with disabilities to be educated in regular schools.  Samoa had also put a “strengthened health system” in place through various reforms in that sector, she said.  The continuing construction of the new national hospital facility would increase the health services available to women, while targeted interventions in the health sector would address the prevalence of non-communicable diseases.  By improving nutrition through the Family and Community Wellbeing Programme and conducting the National Health Fair in 2011, the Government was working to ensure health for all Samoans, she said.

Speaking of village women representatives, she said their work had resulted in greater engagement by women and girls in advocacy against gender violence, disaster preparedness and management programmes, school enrolment and vocational training opportunities, improved birth registration for children, and livelihood programmes for unemployed mothers and young women.  The network of village women representatives was a strong mechanism to ensure the participation of rural women in development.  Acknowledging the gap in allowances paid to the village women representatives compared to village representatives, she said the Ministry of Women, Community and Social Development was advocating for an increase in their allowance.

On the changing role of women after marriage, she said:  “The Samoan women traditionally are family covenants” with a series of traditional roles that ensured the family’s identity and standing.  When they married, their status was determined by that of their husbands.  If the husband was an untitled man whose role was to serve the family, the wife’s role was to support that role, whereas if the husband was a chief, his status translated into respect and status for a his wife.

The Government had strengthened the capacities of law-enforcement agencies to manage domestic violence, she said, adding that financial support had been made available to support the work of non-governmental organizations providing counselling and support to victims.  Outreach programmes worked at various levels, from the village council to the church, guaranteeing that the protection of victims became the collective responsibility of the whole family and the entire village.  Samoan women had a prestigious position in the country’s way of life, and the country had come a long way in achieving the State’s obligations under the Convention, she said.

Experts’ Questions and Comments

PRAMILA PATTEN, expert from Mauritius, while commending the Government’s efforts on law reform, asked about a time frame for passing the crimes bill and requested an update on the creation of the Ombudsman’s Office.  What was the legal status of the Convention? she asked.  Could it be invoked directly in the courts, and was it cited in court judgements?  Had the Government sought technical assistance to ratify the Optional Protocol?

DUBRAVKA ŠIMONOVIĆ, expert from Croatia, stressed the importance of temporary special measures for women’s advancement, and asked whether the Government planned to institute them in areas other than Parliament, which currently had quotas for women’s participation.

ZOU XIAOQIAO, expert from China, asked the delegation to elaborate on the priority areas of the action plan for women’s advancement, the timeframe for implementing them, and the progress made thus far to that end.  How many people worked in the Ministry of Women, Community and Social Development, and what was its budget for gender equality activities?

NICOLE AMELINE, Committee Vice-Chairperson and expert from France, asked how the Government combined local traditional justice with established legal process.  What measures were underway to assist incarcerated women? Were there any steps to make women the engine of agricultural development, and what percentage of the federal budget went towards that aim?

Delegation’s Response

A delegate said the crimes bill was currently undergoing translation into Samoan, but it was difficult to know when it would be enacted.  The Ombudsman’s Office, in existence for 20 years, was in the process of becoming the Human Rights Commission.  The Ministry of Women educated people about the Convention, she said.  On the compatibility of established and traditional systems, she said village justice supported the legal system, and they worked side by side.  Any penalties imposed at the village level were taken into consideration when sentencing the offender in the established court system.  Under the new corrections bill, female and male prisoners would be housed separately.

Another delegate said the priority areas for the 2010-2015 action plan on gender equality were to ensure a responsible institutional mechanism for women; to combat violence against women; to improve health for women and girls; and to promote women’s sustainable economic development while increasing their participation in public life and decision-making.  The plan continued to inform the Ministry in meeting its obligations, she said, adding that reference had already been made to several law reforms that had taken place in the context of the women’s Convention and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.  Constitutional amendments to increase women’s participation in Parliament could be expanded to increase their participation in decision-making and economic life.

She said the Ministry of Women, Community and Social Development had a staff of 104, while the village representatives’ network comprised 300 people working to promote gender equality at the local level.  The Ministry’s annual budget was $10 million, 10 per cent of which was earmarked for gender equality activities.

Experts’ Questions and Comments

Ms. ŠIMONOVIĆ, expert from Croatia, recalled that during Samoa’s last submission to the Committee, the expert members had recommended that it add a definition of discrimination to its Constitution, yet the charter had not been amended.  Did the Constitution prohibit discrimination based on sex, as well as the principle of equality between men and men? she asked.

Ms. AMELINE, Committee Vice Chairperson and expert from France, asked whether the Government had the ability to live up to its commitments in the long term.  Had it set specific goals?

Delegation’s Response

Ms. GIDLOW said her Ministry provided the financing for annual implementation of gender equality programmes, with partner aid.  The Ministry was aware of its financial limitations, which was why it worked with other ministries as well as civil society groups.  Regarding gaps in conducting investigations in the legal system, she said a specific goal was to increase access to justice by strengthening institutional mechanisms and bolstering the public’s awareness of their legal rights.  The principle of equality between men and women, and the prohibition of discrimination based on sex, were indeed enshrined in the Constitution, she said.

Another delegate said the Government intended to conduct a review of progress in implementing the Convention.  If the political will existed, the Constitution could be amended to provide for temporary special measures in other areas.

Experts’ Questions and Comments

NAELA MOHAMED GABR, expert from Egypt, said that rather than doing away with tribal and community traditions, the Committee wished only to “nudge them along in a positive direction”.  What was the relationship between the role of matai (chief) and political representation of women? she asked, adding that she was worried about land registration because it was important that women be able to own land.

Ms. ŠIMONOVIĆ, expert from Croatia, noted that the report provided no statistical data about violence against women and domestic violence, and requested information on the number of women killed by their husbands or ex-husbands.  The delegation had reported the establishment of a shelter, but since it was not easy to establish shelters in small island countries, what kind of measures were provided to keep women safe in those shelters?

Ms. GABR, expert from Egypt, pointed out that the report provided no data on trafficking, and emphasized that no State could be protected against that crime in a globalized world.  Why had Samoa not adhered to the Palermo Protocol, which focused on the trafficking of human beings? She asked the Government to consider a draft law on trafficking, as preventive measures such as legislation constituted a crucial supplement to punishment.

Delegation’s Response

A member of the delegation stated that men and women had to obtain the title of matai before they could contest elections.  As Samoa had considered independence, it had been decided that the Government would be based on the matai or chiefly system for the purpose of ensuring stability.  Some villages had by-laws that did not allow women to obtain chiefly titles, but through advocacy and education, some of them had changed their by-laws.

The Government did not provide shelters for victims of violence or crime, she added, adding that the family unit and the village council were responsible for providing a protective environment.  However, one or two non-governmental organization provided shelters for women and children.  She went on to state that the only study conducted in Samoa on violence and women had found 46 per cent of the sample size to have been experiencing violence.  Another study would be conducted in 2013, she said.

Another delegation member, noting that law reform was a time-consuming process involving consultations with the public, said that, rather than “taking a piece of statue from overseas and applying it to Samoa”, it was necessary to make laws relevant to Samoa.

Yet another member of the delegation said that while some villages did not allow women to become matai, a woman from such a village could become a matai in another village where she had roots or family relations, and still run for Parliament.  The matai title, therefore, was not a big hindrance to contesting elections.

Experts’ Questions and Comments

Ms. GABR, expert from Egypt, repeated her question on land ownership, asking whether a woman without the title of matai could register land.

Ms. ZOU, expert from China, asked whether there was any punishment for the perpetrator when women victims of domestic violence went to their own families or other relatives.  Did the Government provide any aid for the victims? “Domestic violence is not a private issue,” she emphasized.  “It was a violation of human rights.”

Delegation’s Response

A delegation member said there were two types of land in Samoa, freehold land and customary land.  The former could be held by women while the latter was held by families, with women included in the ownership.  There was no Government aid available to women victims of domestic violence, she said, adding that Samoa was party to the Palermo Protocol.

Experts’ Questions and Comments

Ms. GABR, expert from Egypt, said Samoa was not a party to the Palermo Protocol.

MARIA HELENA LOPES DE JESUS PIRES, expert from Timor-Leste, said women in Samoa faced two hurdles on the path to political participation.  While only citizens with matai titles were eligible for election to Parliament, not all villages permitted women to obtain it.  As a result, although only 9 per cent of the total population had matai titles, 80 per cent of whom were men and only 20 per cent women.  The other problem was that, even in villages where women were allowed to become matai, they were still prohibited from participating in village council meetings, which had a very influential role in village life.  Notwithstanding advocacy efforts, could the delegation talk about policy efforts to address that?

Delegation’s Response

One member of the delegation said there were 300 villages in Samoa, of which only 10 did not allow women to hold matai titles.  To become a matai required a consensus process in which the entire family was involved, since it knew whether the person concerned was capable of leadership.  The Ministry of Women and various non-governmental organizations were working to encourage more women to come on board.

Another delegation member said it was “a real experience to be in a minority”, recalling that, in a pre-independence plebiscite, there had been overwhelming support for a mix of the traditional and the modern systems of government.  The stability that Samoa had enjoyed while playing its part in a global family was partly due to its traditional structures, he said.  Samoa appreciated the Convention’s facilitative role, but rather than forcing change on the population, it was important to go step by step, he stressed.  In earlier times, women had not been attracted to the idea of becoming a matai, but today many were interested in participating in that process, he said, adding:  “I have a wife and two daughters who run my life.”  Samoan women were part of the household and integral to the structure of the family and community, he emphasized, expressing hope that the experts would appreciate the constraints of a small developing Pacific island State with its own culture.

Experts’ Questions and Comments

PATRICIA SCHULZ, expert from Switzerland, said she wished to share her puzzlement rather than ask a question.  While the choice that Samoa had made to mix tradition and modernism, and the necessity to evolve step by step, had been explained, that approach contradicted the Convention, which obliged the State party to prohibit discrimination immediately.  Yet, to do so would be to destroy the original culture.  “What is there to do?” she asked.

OLINDA BAREIRO-BOBADILLA, expert from Paraguay, said that while it was important to start somewhere, she was concerned that the minimum 10 per cent of parliamentary seats for women might eventually become the ceiling.  Furthermore, the requirement of the matai title for election to Parliament was a form of discrimination that should be remedied soon.

Ms. ŠIMONOVIĆ, expert from Croatia, said that by ratifying the Convention, States parties were obliged to fulfil it.  While the Committee was aware of the need to be flexible, it also expected the delegation to give a clear picture of the problems and obstacles in the way of women.

Ms. PIRES, expert from Timor-Leste, pointed out that Samoa had ratified the Convention without any reservations and had therefore accepted all its obligations.  But it was important to note that the right of women to participate fully in elections was not only the Convention’s only requirement but also a right that women in Samoan society were claiming for themselves.

Delegation’s Response

A member of the delegation said that, initially, only those with the matai tile had been able to vote, but a constitutional amendment had ensured universal suffrage.  That illustrated the step-by-step process of progress, he said, noting that if all countries had immediately discharged their obligations under the Convention, exercises such as the presentation of reports and holding a constructive dialogue would not be necessary.  “Yes, we know we have responsibilities, but the Convention had to be localized,” he emphasized.  Once the local people owned it, they would advocate for more change.  Samoa was not dragging its feet; it was the nature of a tightly-knit society to develop at its own pace, he stressed.

Experts’ Questions and Comments

BARBARA EVELYN BAILEY, expert from Jamaica, expressed regret over the absence of sex-disaggregated data, as well as concern that most girls who attended primary school did not go on to secondary school.  What was the reason for that? she asked.  What options were available to girls who dropped out of school to develop income-generating skills?  Were there any plans to increase capacity in the public education system so as to accommodate more girls?  Was there a policy to help pregnant dropouts return to school?  Was sexual abuse and harassment a problem in schools, and did the Government’s behavioural-management policies address it?

Ms. PATTEN, expert from Mauritius, sought clarification on the labour relations bill, asking whether it contained provisions for protecting women from discrimination due to pregnancy or marital status, and from sexual harassment.  Did it have an explicit provision on equal pay for equal work?  To what extent was a gender perspective incorporated into the stimulus bill?  Was the Labour Inspectorate being more vigilant in implementing laws and regulations?

SOLEDAD MURILLO DE LA VEGA, expert from Spain, stressed the need to amend laws governing abortion, which was illegal in all circumstances.  What measures were taken to punish rapists?  How did the Government evaluate the impact of poor water use on women’s health?  What concrete anti-HIV measures were in place?

Ms. ZOU, expert from China, requested more sex-disaggregated data on rural women in Samoa’s next country report.  What measures were in place to give rural better access to health-care services and to combat poverty among them? she asked  Commending the Government’s national policy on disability, she asked about concrete steps taken to assist disabled women since its adoption.  Had the Government conducted in-depth research on the long-term impact on women and children of the new land-registration system?

Delegation’s Response

A member of the delegation, agreeing that there were gaps in school enrolment, and that teen pregnancy contributed to the high dropout rate among girls, said she was not aware of any specific policy to help pregnant girls return to school.  However, the education system did help girls seeking to return.  Regarding abuse in school that could result from the higher percentage of male teachers, she said the Ministry of Education had minimum service standards to address such issues and refer them to the Ministry of Police and Investigation.

Another delegation member acknowledged that there were cases in which rural women needed the endorsement of their husbands to access family planning services.  The Government provided services nationwide through the national health care service network, she said, adding that several non-governmental organizations specializing in health care provided reproductive health services.  She cited Government efforts to improve rural health-care infrastructure damaged by cyclones.

She also pointed to a major European programme to improve rural women’s access to water, as well as a village-owned water scheme.  Much of the HIV/AIDS prevention programme was outsourced to non-governmental organizations, but if its services were not up to standard, the Ministry of Health took over.  Since 1991, there had been 22 reported cases of people infected with HIV on the island, she said, adding that the Government was working to prevent the spread of AIDS.  The Ministry of Health was working to improve policy on abortion, specifically to help victims of rape and incest.  The Education Department was working to support secondary school drop-outs.

Another member of the delegation said abortion was still illegal, though it was permitted if performed by a medical practitioner who believed that the birth would endanger the mother’s life.  Rape was punishable by life in prison.  The new Land Registry Act catered to people seeking to build vacation homes, she said, adding that she was not aware of any survey to ascertain its impact on women and children.

Another delegation member acknowledged the absence of sex-disaggregated data on rural women but pointed to capacity-building programmes aimed at helping women lead in sustainable development.

Experts’ Questions and Comments

Ms. AMELINE, Committee Vice-Chairperson and expert from France, asked whether most small-owned businesses were run by women.

Ms. MURILLO DE LA VEGA, expert from Spain, asked the delegation to elaborate on legislation governing corporal punishment in schools and on abortion.

Delegation’s Response

Responding to various follow-up questions, a member of the delegation said that after many years of capacity development and training, women-led small businesses were in existence, focusing on manufacturing, fabric arts, food production and garment-making.  Private sector and civil society organizations also supported those small-business initiatives.  She said there was no time frame for prohibiting corporal punishment since corporal it had been outlawed.

Experts’ Questions and Comments

Ms. BAREIRO-BOBADILLA, expert from Paraguay, asked about support for budgetary funding earmarked for organizations working with rural women.  What efforts were being made to promote rural women’s leadership?

Delegation’s Response

A delegation member said there was no specific budgetary allocation from the Ministry of Women to support non-governmental organizations working with rural women, but other Government avenues, such as the civil society support programme, provided a tremendous amount of funding.  The Government also provided a number of capacity-building opportunities to village women representatives, she said, adding that training on gender and governance were also offered.

Experts’ Questions and Comments

YOKO HAYASHI, expert from Japan, pointed out that the crime bill did not address the legal age of marriage.  How was the Law Reform Commission undertaking a review of that issue?  She also noted that Samoa’s divorce law entitled the woman to a lump-sum payment upon divorce, depending on her behaviour and according to the ability of her husband.

Delegation’s Response

A member of the delegation said the legal age of marriage was covered under Marriage Ordnance 1961, and the Law Reform Commission was reviewing that as the Government tried to harmonize the age and definition of childhood throughout all legislation.  A final report drafted by the Commission would be tabled in Parliament.  As for the division of matrimonial assets, the Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Act 1961 had added an amendment which guaranteed that each party to the marriage made an equal contribution.

Experts’ Questions and Comments

Ms. MURILLO DE LA VEGA, expert from Spain, asked whether violence against women was recognized as a cause for divorce, and whether it was possible to speed up divorce proceedings, given the gravity of such a situation.  Could women initiate divorce proceedings?

Delegation’s Response

A delegation member replied that if the court was satisfied that one of the parties to the marriage was subjected to violence, it could grant a decree of divorce, even if the parties had not lived separately for the required time.

Ms. GIDLOW said in conclusion that the delegation had taken the Committee’s recommendations on board and would work towards implementing them for Samoa’s next periodic report.

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