The imposing fence posts of the EFKS Tutoatasi in Siutu ushers you into the village.

The village of Siutu is tucked away on the south eastern side of the big island of Savaii. The first notable thing you see when you enter the village is the impressive church building and surrounding fence of the EFKS Tutoatasi, which most of the almost 400 population are part of.

It is a small village compared to others in the district and the surrounding area. It doesn’t have any natural sites or tourism attractions like many villages in Savaii. Chances are, many have never heard of this village, let alone know where it is located.

But small as it is and seemingly unknown, Siutu has pulled off a major feat. Starting last year, it became one of only a few villages in Samoa, if not the only one, that has changed its traditional social structure to include women who are married into the village or in-laws in its council or fono. This is traditionally the domain of the titled men or matai only, and if there are any women, it’s only the daughters of the village who are matais. Siutu has changed this by allocating a seat in its village council for women who are married into the village. It’s a significant change for any village.

Every village in Samoa has its own by-laws or rules that govern its affairs, tailored to their unique circumstances and realities. One similarity for many village by-laws is the fact that women traditionally do not have a seat in the highest decision-making forum in the village – the council of chiefs or fono a matai. Even rarer is the inclusion of women who are married to village men. This fono is usually reserved only for men and is traditionally referred to as the tafatolu o pulega po’o faiganu’u, or the triangle of authority and village politics. The triangle refers to the chiefs (which can include men married into the village, faiāvā, who now hold matai titles from the village), the daughters of the village, and the untitled men or sons of the village.

What Siutu has done is change that triangle into a square to include the nofotane or women married to men of the village. It’s a move deemed controversial in some villages as in-laws are considered outsiders. But the village sa’o or paramount chief of Siutu, Fuiavailili Pe’a Fune, said there was widespread support and consensus from the village to change its shape and structure to include and accommodate for their wives.

“There was a lot of buy-in from our village regarding this move as we came up with the idea ourselves when we saw how beneficial it would be for our whole village. We do not refer to women married into our village as nofotane as is commonly done. We also don’t refer to the men married into our village as faiāvā, as is customary. We are all one village, and they are called people of the village, and they can all add value and contribute meaningfully to our village affairs,” said Fuiavailili. “We know this is hard for some villages to do or even accept, but that wasn’t the case for us. We knew this will work for us. We all came together and agreed on this as the best way forward for our village and we haven’t looked back since.”

Women who are married into the village now have a seat and a voice in the village council of Siutu, something that wasn’t done before, and a rarity in Samoa, where the village fono is the domain of the men and women of the village.

 

Enabling women to pursue leadership beyond village boundaries

The absence of women in the village fono has long been labeled as a major barrier to their participation in national politics as this is the first major forum of leadership that they need to be included in to make it easier for them to carve a path into politics.

What the village of Siutu has done has effectively made it easier for women to actually break into the political arena, regardless of their marital status. This change has contributed to the village’s decision to field a female candidate for the first time ever to contest the upcoming General Elections for the Palauli No. 1 constituency. Mulipola Anarosa Ale Molioo, a daughter of the village, epitomizes the change that is happening within Siutu.

“Being in the village council has empowered me to realize the importance of being accepted as a female in a male dominant field. It has also helped me understand that if I had managed to overcome this hurdle – of being involved in village politics – why not take it to the next level?” said Mulipola Anarosa Ale Molioo.

“In my family as I was growing up with my sisters, we were always given the chance to speak our minds regarding every aspect that needed to be addressed. This was the first arena where we exercised our rights as females and at the same time learnt to appreciate our value and be able to help others in whatever way we can. I was intrigued to try politics when I started sitting in our village council especially because it was male dominant. This caused me to prioritize the two main pertinent issues of good governance and gender equality within village councils as the ones I needed to address, and the main reasons why I wanted to run for Parliament.”

The council of chiefs said they were unanimous in their decision to nominate Mulipola to represent their village in the April elections based on her qualifications, merit and service to the village over the years.

“This is also part of our efforts to align our village with what the government and the international community is moving towards – the promotion and inclusion of women in leadership positions to add value and enhance these positions. Mulipola Anarosa’s nomination was a collective decision of our village and is a reflection of the change in perceptions and positive changes that we are currently experiencing in Siutu,” said Mulipola Faigā, one of the key figures in instigating this change.

Saofaiga a matai o Siutu with their candidate for the Samoa General Elections, Mulipola Anarosa Ale Molioo (front, second from left), and the only other female matai in the village next to her, Fuiavailili Sauiluma.

 

Strength in numbers

The decision by the village has empowered other women to step forward into their leadership roles.

Seventy-four-year-old Fuiavailili Sauiluma is a daughter of Siutu, and she has been the sole female matai in the village since taking up the Fuiavailili title in 2009. But because she was the only female matai, she said she wasn’t comfortable to contribute to any village meetings, let alone sit in one. That has now changed.

“It’s wonderful how our village is now. I am so happy that I can not only finally sit in a village fono, along with our male leaders and my other village sisters, but more so, that I can speak freely and have my voice heard in village matters. The inclusion of the women who married into our village in our decision-making has empowered me to speak up more and make a difference for all of us,” said Fuiavailili Sauiluma. 

Fuiavailili Sauiluma has been the sole female matai in Siutu since 2009. However, she previously did not attend any village fono meetings as she felt uncomfortable being the only female. That has now changed under the new structure.



Village women in national leadership positions

The village is also home to the Vice Chair of the Samoa National Council of Women (Fono Aoao a Tina o Samoa) – 65-year-old Saliao Gafo Kaisa, who is married into Siutu. She is second in command to veteran politician and female pioneer in politics, the Hon Fiame Naomi Mataafa, who Saliao credited as a role model.

“The inclusion of women in village and national politics is something that Fiame has long advocated for, so this has also become an important subject to me. Our village’s transformation to include outsiders like myself in the village fono is something that we have dreamt of for a long time, and to see the realization of that dream in our lifetime is something that we will treasure forever,” said Saliao.

She said this decision has also enhanced relations in the village between men and women in general, as well as male matai and women as they are more aware and sensitive to each other’s needs and beliefs. She credited the improved relations as well to good leadership at the village level, from both men and women being involved in decision-making. So much so, that she said it has also had a positive impact on reducing domestic violence cases in the village.

“We haven’t had a case of domestic violence reported or known in the village in a while. I believe this is a direct result of the massive change we’ve seen in the increase in good leadership and governance at the village council level. Our involvement allows us to offer advice and balance when discussions get heated, and that counsel is always heeded. There has been a notable change in how people relate to each other in the village and in familial relationships,” said Saliao.

Another change noted is how both men and women now take turns doing village clean-ups and family visits, which were tasks mainly done by only women before. But now the men take turns with the women to carry this out, and together at other times. The different village groups still carry out their regular functions, but they acknowledge that some roles are interchangeable, and some responsibilities can be carried out together.

Slide
There’s a lot to smile about for the women of Siutu ever since the village went down this path of inclusion.
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There’s a lot to smile about for the women of Siutu ever since the village went down this path of inclusion.

The Women in Leadership in Samoa Project

This critical change in the social structure of Siutu came about when the Women in Leadership in Samoa (WILS) Project carried out a Transformational Leadership Development Programme (TLDP) Training, in 2018. This gave birth to a localized Village Leadership Development Initiative (VLDI) which trained key local community trainers and agents for change to implement at their villages. The VLDI training was held at Salailua, Savaii for the Palauli No 1 district in which matais from Siutu participated in. The training gave the village of Siutu the opportunity to come up with what is known as a Break Through Initiative (BTI) as part of their actionable commitments.

“We decided that we would propose to our village that the traditional triangle of the village governance (tafatolu o faiganu’u) be changed to a ‘square’ and that the social aggregate of faletua, tausi ma ava a taulelea (in-laws) are given a recognized placing in our village seating so that they are part of our decision-making process,” said Paiutu Auatama, Sui o le Nuu, or male village representative for Siutu.

“When we presented our proposal to our village council, it was greatly supported as they all knew and understood the value women bring into our village. This is a very big change for us especially when we know that others may question why we are changing the foundation of village governance but I thank God for helping our matai to make this big decision. Today, when we have our village meetings, we have a representative from this group of women sitting in and contributing to our discussions.”

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The women of Siutu, from aualuma and sa’o tamaitai (women of the village) to faletua and tausi (in-laws), are ecstatic about their newfound status and role in the village fono.
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The women of Siutu, from aualuma and sa’o tamaitai (women of the village) to faletua and tausi (in-laws), are ecstatic about their newfound status and role in the village fono.
A village that plans together, stays together. Male and female matai of the village of Siutu with the women of the village whose voices can now all be heard in the village fono.


The WILS Project is a, three-year joint project implemented by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and UN Women, with funding from the Australian Government, in partnership with the Government of Samoa. Its main mandate is to promote women’s leadership and gender equality in Samoa, which has largely been fulfilled and embodied by the village of Siutu.

Australia’s High Commissioner to Samoa, Her Excellency Sara Moriarty, highlighted the importance of backing such projects in Samoa, saying: “We are proud to support programmes that advance gender equality, such as the Women In Leadership Samoa (WILS) initiative. Strengthening women’s leadership in the community is a key objective of Australia’s gender programme in Samoa. Our partnership with WILS has been met with keen enthusiasm from the community, as participants want to gain knowledge and skills that will influence and empower other women and girls to take on leadership roles in the local village, and someday represent nationally.”

Her sentiments are echoed by UNDP.

“UNDP is committed to changing mindsets about women in leadership roles and increase their participation and involvement in decision-making processes. The WILS project enables UNDP to partner with UN Women to strengthen the leadership pathways for women and develop their leadership capacity to engage more effectively at all levels,” said UNDP Resident Representative, Jorn Sorensen.

WILS Project Manager, Taulapapa Alanna Mapu (left) with women & matai of the village along with their election candidate, Mulipola Anarosa Ale Molioo (2nd from right). Photos: L.Lesa/UNDP Samoa.

 

At the International Women’s Day Roundtable hosted by the National University of Samoa on 8 March 2021, UN Resident Coordinator, Dr. Simona Marinescu stated that more women in leadership make better societies and more cohesive communities owing to women’s concerns for children and the elderly and for everyone’s wellbeing and access to opportunities.

 

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For media queries, please contact:
Laufaleaina Lesa, UNDP Multi Country Office, Samoa|Tel. +685 23670|E: laufaleaina.lesa@undp.org | Website: www.ws.undp.org | Facebook: @UNDP in Samoa, Cook Islands, Tokelau & Niue | Twitter: @undpsamoa
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