Who's missing?

7 September, 2017. Samoa –  I went to a self-proclaimed ‘Gender Conference’ at the Pacific Islands Forum, and left feeling a little confused.

Full disclosure, it was an ‘Invite Only’ event – and I wasn’t invited. Technically, I conference-crashed. So the fact that I am not in tune with official level gender-workings stuff, could very well explain why I was confused…

First, the good.

The Conference was “an opportunity for PIF leaders, cooperation partners and civil society to reflect on the roles of women in Pacific societies, including on issues such as political and decision-making processes, responding to violence against women, women’s empowerment and the role of governments, private sector and civil society.”

The panellists were awesome and said many really great things. Our Prime Minister was on the panel, alongside the Australian Minister for International Development and the Pacific, the head rep of the UN Women Multi-Country Office in Fiji, and the Deputy Managing Director of Asia and the Pacific  EEAS.

But I was particularly awed to be in the same room and breathing the same air as legend Dr Hilda Heine, President of the Marshall Islands,  and also Tonga’s Ofa Guttenbeil Likiliki who’s work I have admired from afar.

Another confession, the real reason I was there was to #fangirl Dr Heine. When I heard she was on the panel I was committed to inviting myself to the session. (In other words, if I get in trouble, can I say it’s all her fault?)

The panellists gave great presentations. Ms Likiliki’s diagram and discussion on equality vs equity was fabulous. And when President Heine spoke about women leading ‘our families, our clans and our nations’ – I was so moved and had to fight the urge to leap up and try to give her a fist-bump of #sisterhood.

EU-Pacific Gender Conference panellists.

Nobody asked me what the heck was I doing in there, or escorted me out which was also a win!

I did note though that there were lots of empty seats in the Sheraton Ballroom venue. Lots more people interested in gender-issues in Samoa and in the region could have fit in there. (Or just people who also wanted to fangirl stalk Pres Heine…)

But what confused me was – no mention was made of the third gender. That is of course the palagi/western term for our cultural gender identities of Fa’afafine (Samoa), Fakaleiti (Tonga), Akavaine (Cook Islands) and many others across the Pacific.

How can any discussion of gender inequality in the Pacific NOT include any mention of the discrimination and inequalities experienced by our third gender brothers and sisters?

I listened to the panellists talk about the Pacific having the lowest rates of female political representation and what should be done about that…but what about the fact that just in a Samoan context, Fa’afafine are not participating in Village Councils and we have no Fa’afafine Members of Parliament?

They talked about domestic violence and pouring more money into changing root causes of violence against women and girls, but what about fa’afafine who are often the target of bullying and sexual abuse in their families, schools and communities? Shouldn’t any conversation about domestic violence include fa’afafine because of the double burden of discrimination they experience when trying to seek help? For example, we have villages where Fa’afafine are not allowed to wear a dress, and are punished if they have long hair.

Last week the Samoa Faafafine Pageant acted as a vehicle for raising awareness about some of the inequality that Fa’afafine experience and I learnt a great deal from the dialogue that came out of their speech competition and other pageant activities.

Where’s the gender empowerment programs that include them?

It’s not just about the fact that Fa’afafine / the Pacific’s third gender need support to overcome deeply embedded discriminatory attitudes. By not including them as full partners in all our development programs and gender-empowerment initiatives, we are missing out on the rich wealth of talent, knowledge and skills that an entire segment of the population has to offer.

If we as advocates / development partners / aid funders / gender program workers are truly committed to gender equality, then we should include our transgender and/or third gender sisters and brothers in the conversation.

I know that there is debate on the world stages about where LGBTQI / SOGIE human rights issues ‘fit’ and where they should best be addressed. The palagi world with its binary constructs is often miles behind indigenous cultures and their understanding of gender fluidity. And I know the EU organised (and funded?) this particular conference.

But the Forum is supposed to be about us, by us and for us – here in Pasefika.  It shouldn’t be something revolutionary or ‘foreign’ or ‘too advanced’ or ‘not yet…not now’ to include ALL genders in a conference about gender? Or is it?

Maybe it’s just me.

Maybe this is why I shouldn’t conference-crash events that I wasn’t invited to!


Lani Wendt Young

Lani Wendt Young

Award-winning writer, blogger and columnist. Author of 9 books including the international bestsellingTELESA Series and the SCARLET LIES Series. Living in Samoa with her Ironman husband and 5 children.

Lani Wendt Young


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