The National, Friday 14th September 2012
Deeply entrenched cultural beliefs promotes the view that women should not be seen or heard in the
public arena, writes HILDA WAYNE.
THE steady and successful rise of Papua New Guinea’s three new women members of Parliament has drawn praise from the Premier of Tas¬mania, Lara Giddings.
Giddings was the youngest woman ever to be elected into Australia’s Par¬liament at the age of 23 in 1999.
However her interest in PNG politics and especially the three women MPs is because she has a much deeper connec¬tion to PNG. Giddings was born and raised in Goroka, Eastern Highlands Province where she spent much of her childhood. She has been following PNG’s recent elections with much in¬terest and praised Loujaya Toni, Delli¬lah Pueka Gore and Julie Soso on their win.
In an interview with the Western Independent, Premier Giddings said: “As a woman born in the Eastern High¬lands of PNG, and as a member of the Tasmanian Parliament, I have watched with pride the recent PNG elections where a record number of women have been elected to Parliament, including Julie Soso now Governor of the Eastern Highlands. Considering much of PNG society, especially the Highlands, oper¬ates under patriarchal structures, this is a huge achievement.”
“Ideally, Parliaments should reflect the make-up of their communities and with women consisting of almost half of the population in PNG, it is impor¬tant women are represented in this important democratic institution,” Pre¬mier Giddings said.
Soso tried contesting three elections against strong male contenders in the Eastern Highlands regional seat and lost those until this year. After much perseverance and a lot of hard work, she finally convinced voters it is time for change. Soso has earned respect and a chance to represent her people in Par¬liament.
“The door is now open for all women in the country as people begin to realise that women are just as capable of being good leaders in PNG. This is the change we have always wanted,” said Julie Soso, a former radio broadcaster who decided her voice will be best heard on the floor of PNG’s National Parliament, going down in history as the country’s first woman governor.
When speaking with the Western In¬dependent from PNG, Governor Soso said her priority would be to develop the province’s poor infrastructure so that people are able to get their pro¬duces easily to markets and schools and hospitals get much needed support from the Government.
A 2002 report by University of PNG academic, Dr Orovu Sepoe said the only time PNG ever saw women repre-sentation in its Parliament was in 1977 when there were three women, however this did not encourage more women to enter into politics.
“Despite women’s persistent losses in successive PNG national elections since 1977, their struggle is relentless and their spirit has not been stifled,” said Dr Sepoe, in her report.
The 1997 elections saw the emer¬gence of one strong willed woman, Queensland-born Dame Carol Kidu who is a household name in PNG. She was a lone woman MP for the past 15 years until her retirement from poli¬tics this year. She served as a minister from 2002 to 2011 and was leader of the Melanesian Alliance party. She also served as leader of the Opposition early this year.
Dame Carol spearheaded a bill which would have seen a total of 22 seats set aside for women in Parliament as PNG was way below its UN obligation to have a third of its Parliamentary seats for women. An all-male Parliament didn’t see the bill get passed as law.
The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) was adopted in 1979 by the UNGeneral Assembly and en¬tered into force on 3 September 1981. The PNG Parliament ratified CEDAW without reservations in 1995 and to fulfil this obligation a third of its Par¬liamentary representation have to be women. PNG has fallen way short of that target.
“Women in PNG have been used and abused for many years now and we are accepting this because of beliefs passed on from generations. However this must change and now we are seeing exciting times for politics in PNG with the election of our new female MPs,” University of Western Australia PhD graduate Gabriel Sion says.
Sion has worked with former MP Dame Carol Kidu in policy formula¬tion. He says the challenge is in the way people continue to view the role of women in this country. He believes educating the younger population also plays a part in raising awareness on the leadership abilities of women.
Sion said international conventions that the PNG government has entered into regarding the rights and opportu¬nities of women are not becoming real¬ity.
According to an Amnesty Interna¬tional report, discrimination against women in PNG remains a ‘grave con¬cern’. Harmful norms, practices and traditions contribute to the negative stereotyping of women and to wide¬spread discrimination against them in almost all facets of society.
Loujaya Toni is now responsible for the ministry once held by Dame Carol. Toni says women in PNG need to do more by aligning themselves with po¬litical parties through fundraising, and actually being on campaign trails like the men. She said it was not an easy task having to go up against former sit¬ting member Bart Philemon who was member for two terms.
“We have to break the male Melane¬sian mindset and earn respect. Respect is earned. You have to speak like the men do, walk the campaign trail and convince your voters. People in your community have got to see you there at their level and actually working with them. From this you will begin to earn people’s trust and respect,” said Toni.
The campaign for Toni was a family affair, her husband was her campaign manager and is now chief advisor in the ministry she holds. She believes good leadership starts in the home first and foremost.
“If your children and husband think you are a good leader and you’ve shown your leadership qualities to them and they trust you, people will also trust and respect you out there,” she said.
The country’s politically appointed positions from the National Parliament to provincial assemblies and local level governments are fiercely contested by men. Deeply entrenched cultural be¬liefs further promotes the mentality that women belong in the home and therefore should not hold high positions or be seen or heard in the public arena.
United Nations Country Representa¬tive David MacLaclan-Karr says the win by the three women increases dra-matically the level of women represen¬tation and also it’s the most number of women in PNG’s Parliament since 1975 when PNG gained independence.
He says the UN sets a goal of one third of seats in any country’s parlia¬ment should be female and although in PNG this was way below target it was also very positive.
“There were fears that we would not have any women in Parliament but we are now very excited and relieved that women’s voices will be back in the na¬tional legislature. PNG is in a situation where people do not have confidence that women can actually do a good job in parliament.
“I think these three women are dy¬namic and that they are going to do a very good job. People will start to see them as effective leaders equally ca¬pable to any of their male counterparts if not better and that will encourage the public to change their perceptions of women as being unelectable or not good leaders,” said MacLaclan-Karr.
As the three new MPs walked into Parliament for their first sitting after elections, the rousing welcome they received from the Prime Minister Pe¬ter O’Neill, their male counterparts and the public was proof that these were in¬deed dynamic women who have earned their seat in a Parliament representing nearly 7 million people.
“We are all looking at ourselves as leaders. Not as men or women. We have gained a lot of respect from our male colleagues in Parliament who see us as partners in development working for our people. Women need to start telling themselves that they can do it too. And it’s a challenge to the three of us too.
“We have to demonstrate to the coun¬try, to our people and show them that we are capable of bringing services to them just as equally as the men,” said Dellilah Gore.
She said a lot of women held back from contesting in the recent elec¬tions but people have finally changed. She said the new members are better educated and it makes a big difference when people’s mindset and attitudes change as well.
“These women serve as an inspira¬tion and example for other young PNG women aspiring to enter politics. In Australia, where we now have a female Prime Minister and Governor General, it is easy to take the significant progress made by women in politics for granted. It is great to see this change now oc¬curring in PNG,” Premier Giddings concluded.
The writer is a student at the Curtin University, Western Australia
This article was originally published in the Western Independent, a newspa¬per produced by Journalism students of Curtin University, Western Australia.