In October 2019 The Royal Commonwealth Society, on behalf of the Equality & Justice Alliance, facilitated a two-day convening in Samoa which brought together parliamentarians and youth leaders from five Commonwealth Pacific countries to engage in dialogue on the rights of women and those of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities. At the event we launched a new report A Fairer Future: Law reform and advocacy opportunities for women’s and PIDSOGIESC+ rights in the Commonwealth Pacific, outlining key opportunities for government and civil society to work together to advance and reform discriminatory laws in Commonwealth Pacific States.

We were honoured to be joining at the event by the Deputy Prime Minister of Samoa, the Hon. Fiame Naomi Mata’afa. In her keynote address, she said:

“In Samoa, we believe that all people should be equal, and that all people should be treated equally. We believe that no matter who are we all deserve to be treated the same, whether it’s within our communities or through the law.”

At the dialogue, youth delegates led the conversation on the importance of establishing spaces where young people can engage with members of parliament, aiming to bridge the gap between governments and young people. Those present agreed that in order to champion inclusion, the legislative process requires the participation of the youth from the beginning, as well as engaging with their families and communities.

The discussion also emphasised the importance of moving beyond tokenism. While progress has been made in advancing women’s rights through legislation, political representation still lags with only 7.9% female MPs in parliaments across the region. We heard from Hon. Alofa Tuuau Aliimalemanu MP, one of only five female parliamentarians in Samoa, on her experiences as a political candidate and elected official. She spoke on negotiating these dynamics, stating that there was so much women have to offer beyond running, and underscored the importance of looking deeper in considering representation and empowerment:

“…Women can be empowered to want to achieve aspirations but they can still not be enabled to do so. It is essential to look deeper into the social norms embedded in our culture that act as obstacles to changing attitudes and behaviours in engaging with young people.”

With the exception of Tonga, all Pacific nations speak to non-discrimination based on sex, and diverse third gender communities have long been recognised across the Commonwealth Pacific. However, the stigmatisation and marginalisation of women and sexual and gender minorities are still enshrined in various laws such as those criminalising sodomy and cross-dressing, or that fail to protect women from gender-based violence or marital rape. Delegates also discussed the role of culture and religion, with one parliamentarian pointing out that contrary to the perception of religion and culture being opposed to advancing inclusion, equality and justice are central Pacific values. As such, it is important to ensure that religious and cultural institutions advance these values when it comes to the rights and well-being of diverse Pacific islanders.

An attendee had stated that negotiating towards this will involve actively asking the question:

“How can we make sure culture evolves in a way that is empowering to us… [and is] in line with the Pacific values we know are important?”

Other youth delegates reiterated the importance of an intersectional approach to tackling marginalisation and discrimination. A Samoan delegate astutely underscored this as well:

“Laws have already been made without the inclusion of the people the laws are about.”

Delegates then worked together to develop an action plan for greater collaboration between youth and parliamentarians to advance equality and inclusion in the Pacific. Parliamentarians from Tuvalu, Kirabati and Samoa made commitments to advance equality and inclusion, including:

  • The Speaker of Parliament of Tuvalu supporting a national dialogue of diverse youth and parliamentarians, including all eight island communities and the Tuvalu national youth council.
  • The formation of the Samoa Parliamentarians and Youth Gender & Equality Network (SPYGEN), to act as a forum between civil society and parliamentarians to identify legislative reform priorities.
  • The Tuvalu Minister of Education to support interventions through the Education Act (already under review) and national school curriculum (to commence soon) that advance inclusion.
  • The Speaker of Parliament of Tuvalu to support temporary special measures to include increased female representation in parliament.
  • The Kiribati Ministry of Justice to work with the Ministry of Youth to set up a working committee to formulate a budget to support a review of all discriminatory laws to ensure compliance with human rights obligations.

The EJA will continuing work with youth and parliamentarians to support the delivery of the action plan.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, not those of the Equality & Justice Alliance Consortium or its partners.