The Job in Hand
Saunoamaali’i Dr Karanina Sumeo is first Pacific woman to be appointed as the Human Rights Commission’s new Equal Employment Opportunities. Karanina joined the Human Rights Commission following her role as Principal Practice Advisor (Pacific) at Oranga Tamariki (OT), working to improve outcomes for Pacific children and their families.
For Saunoamaali’i Dr Karanina Sumeo, the timing as the first Pacific woman to be appointed as the Human Rights Commission’s new Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner, could not have carried more significance.
“Being appointed to the role in the year this nation celebrates 125 years since New Zealand became the first nation in the world to embrace suffrage means a lot to me,” says Karanina, a proud mother of a son and two daughters who is from the Samoan village of Vailima in Upolu.
“As a woman and a Pacific person, I see it as an opportunity to influence how governments are run. It’s hard to exercise change from the outside, so it’s a big deal. We need to take this opportunity to shape our world, instead of waiting for someone to shape it for us, leaving us disempowered.”
Karanina joined the Human Rights Commission following her role as Principal Practice Advisor (Pacific) at Oranga Tamariki (OT), working to improve outcomes for Pacific children and their families. The need to target and engage with Pacific youth to prevent the cycle of violence from repeating itself was clear.
“We do need to open up about it, particularly with our young people, the next generation,” says Karanina, whose previous experience within the public sector also includes roles with the Ministry of Pacific Peoples (formerly Pacific Island Affairs), Tertiary Education Commission and the Auckland District Health Board.
Having presented a thesis towards a Master’s Degree in Social Policy in 2004 on the processes used to address the physical and sexual Abuse of Children in Samoa, she’s pleased to see anti-violence messages being increasingly adopted in Samoa.
Her academic journey began with a Bachelor of Science from the University of Auckland followed by a Master of Philosophy in Social Policy at Massey University. She then went to AUT to complete a PhD looking at the rights of women, fa’afafine and fakaleiti to land under traditional tenure in the urban centres of Samoa and Tonga, where she also has family connections.
Raised primarily by her mother, grandparents and aunties, Karanina was personally driven to conduct research looking at the rights of women.
“Gone are the days in Samoa where you’d find it hard for people to speak out against violence,” says Karanina, who recalls being bullied at school as a child.
“In our Samoan culture, women had status due to the longstanding matai system, which is ingrained into our customs and protocols. Research indicates that while violence is still fairly prevalent in Samoa, it’s not as much as in other Pacific countries, where the rates of gender-based violence in places such as the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea and Kiribati are among the highest in the world.”
For Karanina, employment is a key, hence the reason she applied for the position at HRC upon hearing about it. She is fully aware of the obstacles, not only for Pacific people, but all of those living in New Zealand.
“We’re not in Samoa, where the soil is so fertile to plant things and you can go fishing to survive. In New Zealand, having a good paying job is key to survival,” she says.
“A significant number are working their guts out on very low wages, especially in the sectors dominated by women. Many Pacific families struggle to make ends meet, despite working for 50 to 60 hours a week on a minimum wage.
“The cost of living keeps rising and families are sacrificing food to ensure they can buy enough petrol to get them to work and back. Some are sleeping in cars and I also worry about our older people who used to work in factories, but can’t anymore.”
Such pressures affect the families. While churches have traditionally been regarded as a refuge in times of stress, particularly for women, Karanina wonders if it is still perceived as such.
“Churches used to be the first point of call for our community, but I wonder if it’s still the case. Maybe it’s time for the churches to do more. It’s a conversation that needs to happen,” she says.
“Thanks to initiatives such as Pasefika Proud, we know what needs to happen. People are very aware of family violence and the need to work together to lower the tolerance, which is something the churches can, and I know some are, doing.”
Karanina’s position as Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner is for all New Zealanders, not only Pacific peoples. She’s fully aware of the task ahead.
But with Pacific people still lagging at the bottom of New Zealand’s socio-economic chain, she’s keen to be part of a significant improvement. The way to achieve that is to make your voice heard by being part of the democratic process.
“One thing that excites me about the future is the growing participation of Pacific peoples in the democratic process, whether it’s voting, running for the local board or even government,” she says.
“Because having a voice matters … and others have to listen.”