Earlier this year, Samoa elected Fiamē Naomi Mataʻafa as the first female prime minister to lead the country. Her election ended the 22-year rule of the previous prime minister, Tuilaʻepa Sailele Malielegaoi. She served as his deputy prime minister until a bitter split last year. Malielegaoi declared her election an act of "treason" and locked her party out of Parliament, forcing the Supreme Court to step in and validate the results. International observers urged Malielegaoi to respect Samoa’s democratic values and traditions and Mataʻafa assumed power in July without further incident. The US Government welcomed the peaceful resolution of the electoral conflict and “look[ed] forward to working with...Samoa’s new government.”
Mataʻafa’s election is significant for the status of women’s political representation in the Pacific Islands. Excluding Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand, Mataʻafa is the sole female head of state of a Pacific Island country. She is only the second woman to lead a Pacific Island country, after Hilda Heine of the Republic of the Marshall Islands. The Pacific has the lowest rate of female representation in politics of any region in the world. Only 6% of MPs across the Pacific are women, compared to the global average of 25%. Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, and the Federated States of Micronesia are the only three countries in the world with zero women in parliament.
Women’s participation in all levels of governance is crucial to strengthening democratic institutions. Studies show women in leadership positions increases cross-party cooperation, gender and social equality, and peace and stability.
Since her election, Prime Minister Mataʻafa placed climate change, Covid-19, and investing in Samoa a priority of her national agenda. Mataʻafa and senior members of her party shelved a $100 million proposed wharf project at Vaisusu Bay backed by the Chinese government citing its excessive expense and Samoa’s existing debt burden. At the 76th United Nations General Assembly, Mataʻafa highlighted the threats climate change poses to the health of our oceans and to Pacific Island countries. She described the upcoming COP 26 United Nations Climate Summit in Glasgow as the “point of no return” that will “determine the future trajectory of our planet” and called upon countries to unite in the global fight to prevent and reduce all forms of marine pollutants.
Fiamē Naomi Mataʻafa’s election marks a new era for Samoa and its partnership with the United States. The United States and Samoa have a close friendship maintained by shared values and people-to-people connections. The resolution of the circumstances surrounding Mataʻafa’s appointment demonstrates Samoa’s continued commitment to democracy, while the election itself marks a step forward for gender equality. The Biden administration’s commitment to climate diplomacy is a promising area in which the United States and Samoa can collaborate and continue to strengthen bilateral relations.
Lily Schlieman is a participant of the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington. She is a Master's Student at the University of Hawai'i-Mānoa in Pacific Island Studies and Ocean Policy.