Chief Justice Mata Tuatagaloa is the first woman judge in Samoa, appointed to the District Court in 2011 and to the Supreme Court in 2015. She’s one of the few women in the Pacific region who have broken through the glass ceiling to achieve a judicial appointment. Earlier this year, she gathered with other judges from the Pacific Islands in Auckland, New Zealand, as part of the Pacific Electoral Justice Network. The two-day event established a community of practice among 15 judges to share knowledge on complex electoral issues, provide peer support in situations of political pressure, and help entrench and apply norms across the region.
The International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) spoke with Justice Tuatagaloa about her experience as a woman judge in the region and how she will carry the knowledge from this network forward into her own work.
What’s the most challenging part of being a woman in a male-dominated field?
When I was a lawyer, there were other female lawyers, but in my career on the bench, as the first woman judge to be appointed to the Samoan bench, the most challenging part was proving myself to my male colleagues. I wanted them to know that I was appointed on merit and not just to tick the boxes or to satisfy some gender requirement. I was trying to prove that I could do the job just like those guys, if not better. Another challenge was not having another woman colleague on the bench. Three years after my appointment, another woman judge was appointed, and now, there are four women judges. I like to think I’ve done something right; obviously, it wasn’t all my doing that got the appointments for other women, but I think my appointment initiated the appointments of other women judges and allowed other women lawyers to see that they can make it to the bench. Before I was appointed, I never thought I would be appointed at the age I got appointed—I was 43, and I thought to become a judge, you probably have to be near retirement, a mature age of your mid- or late-50s. There are definitely a lot of positives that came out of my appointment.
What’s been the most rewarding part of sitting on the bench?
The most rewarding part for me is when I make decisions that involve women who appear in court as defendants. When I sentence those women, knowing my culture, being a Samoan woman myself, and being brought up in the same environment, instead of separating myself, I actually put myself in those situations so that the woman will understand that I know what she’s going through. Not that I know exactly what she is going through, but that I understand the culture. There’s a lot of responsibility placed by our families on us women. Aside from women having their own families and young children to look after, there are the parents, and the parents depend on their daughters for financial support. That pressure sometimes causes women to steal. Knowing that and being able to speak about it to the families of the woman who is appearing before me (e.g., this is why they are stealing, because of the huge responsibilities on their shoulders), they can understand where I am coming from.
There are women who are victims of domestic violence who turn up to court severely abused, but despite that, they will ask for leniency, and that’s because of financial dependence in that relationship. I am able to say something knowing that they need to get out of that relationship, that he is not the only means of financial support because you can go back to your family. If you’re talking about being a voice for women, I suppose in that indirect way [I am a voice for women]. But it’s also part of my job.
What did you learn by gathering with other judges from across the Pacific?
We have very similar issues that we experience and similar approaches that we use. If there’s any different approach by any country, it’s good as a learning experience. It’s another way to learn how to handle an electoral issue. There’s also a wider perspective because of the experiences IFES has with other countries [outside of the region]. It gives us more knowledge and ideas of how to approach a new issue if it comes up in our jurisdictions.
After the Samoan elections in 2021, there were a lot of issues that came up. IFES people turned up, and we learned that there’s this issue that happened in this country, and this is how the court ruled on it, and that was good discussion material to learn about what happens in other countries.
What did you discuss about the lack of women judges in the Pacific region?
It was quite visible in February when we gathered, and there’s a small number of senior women judges, but even that, there’s a very small number of senior women judges in the Pacific. I would say to a man that I don’t like this idea of just having [women] selected as judges just to make them look good because they’re satisfying the gender issue and acquiring a gender balance. I don’t like that. If they choose a woman to be a judge, choose us on our merit. If they choose us to satisfy a gender balance, that’s just trying to make the men look good. With that said, we want them to help us with ways to be better judges.
What would your advice be to women who are trying to follow in your footsteps?
Be good at what you do, and never give up. That’s simple advice I can give because that’s how you get to be recognized, and that’s how you get to become a judge, to be good at what you do.
The Pacific Electoral Justice Network was established in 2023, in partnership with the Pacific Justice Sector Programme. The network connects Chief Justices and senior judges across the Pacific to build a community of practice around issues of electoral justice.
The Pacific Electoral Justice Network is made possible by the generous support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The contents are the responsibility of IFES and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.