In PNG, equality is a mirage

Focus, Normal

The National, Wednesday 1st May 2013


IN 1975, as Papua New Guinea claimed its independence and imagined its future, officials set about commissioning a parliament building for Port Moresby which might embody the spirit of the newly-sovereign nation. 

It was a challenging task in a pulsating democracy of more than 800 proud ethnicities, each with distinctive language, art, songs, stories, totems, traditions; running the gamut from volatile highlanders to the more laid-back coastal types. 

Architects in the contest to design the parliament house were encouraged to incorporate motifs from across the land in the (vain) hope this might mitigate offence because in a country where identity is defined by clan, rivalries run deep and symbolism is potent.

One core directive was to render the new capital “in the manner of a Haus Man (men’s house) in a village society”, familiar across most communities as the seat of local authority. 

The eventual structure, which opened in 1984, fulfilled the brief with a soaring interpretation of a Sepik spirit house, where men assemble and perform secret rituals.

There was some nervousness that noses might be out of joint at Sepik culture seizing star billing, and some were, but the prime minister of the day, proud Sepik son, Michael Somare, was apparently most satisfied. 

What women might have thought about this shrine to masculine authority appears not to have been much of a consideration. 

And so it was that even the architecture of power in modern PNG conspired to lock women out. 

Custom banned women from entering, even approaching, a Haus Tambaran, as the parliament is colloquially known.

Nonetheless, intriguingly, the mosaic over the public entrance to the parliament depicts two warriors – one male, one female – of equal size and on equal footing, standing guard over the country’s resources. This was likely an expression of aspiration, according to an anthropological analysis of the influences that shaped the building. 

Today, it just smacks of cruel delusion.

Much has changed in a country that has undergone warp-speed transition from traditional life through colonisation, self-government, independence and modernisation in less than three generations, but not the women’s place. 

Dr Betty Lovai, one of the nation’s most senior female academics, attests that even for women such as herself “to speak up, in front of men, can be deeply intimidating”.

A female political candidate, she says, is making a bold declaration: “I am the leader of this tribe”.

Those women who have tried say that as daunting as it is to violate the Haus Man, this is the least of their problems.

It merely requires courage, and PNG women are not short on that. 

Other obstacles – money, status, education, security, connections – are more elusive.

Thirty years on, PNG womanhood is still more honestly portrayed by the figure tucked in the bottom left corner of the entrance mosaic, staggering under the burden of her bilum – the bag loaded with food for her family. 

Some 95% of PNG women work in subsistence agriculture or fisheries, according to 2012 Monash University-led research into women’s political participation in the Pacific, the burden of their duties in home and garden one of the hurdles to obtaining the education and resources to stand as candidates.

Since the first national election in independent PNG in 1977, only seven women have been elected. 

One was white – Dame Carol Kidu, the Queensland-born widow of former chief justice Sir Buri Kidu – and two were married to white men. 

Three gained their seats only last year – a watershed – in the 111-member chamber.

“Since 1977, we’ve had eight elections which have filled a total of eight hundred and seventy-four parliamentary seats. 

“Ten of them have been won by women (Dame Carol winning three times, Dame Josephine Abaijah twice),” observes Deni ToKunai, a young lawyer who is PNG’s most eminent political blogger, better known by his Twitter handle “Tavurvur” (for the muttering volcano in sight of his home island). 

“That’s a strike rate of about 1%.”

It reflects the wider story in the Pacific, which has the lowest female political participation in the world. Pacific parliaments (excluding Australia and New Zealand) have an average of only 3.65% women – sixteen women among 438 MPs – according to Inter-Parliamentary Union figures.

For a moment on Nov 23, 2011, it looked as if something profound might be about to happen to change women’s influence in PNG society, something that promised to rupture the invisible walls around the Haus Tambaran. 

It came in the midst of a political and constitutional maelstrom – between the newly-declared O’Neill government’s effort to remove the chief justice for fraud, and the Supreme Court’s ruling that Peter O’Neill’s ousting of the long-enduring Somare was unconstitutional.

The rival camps of “big men” were locked in a bitter, paralysing, madcap and at times menacing battle for the perks and power of incumbency ahead of the looming 2012 general election.

The business of government foundered, threatening the passage of critical and hard-fought Bills. 

One was the Equality and Participation Bill, or Women’s Bill, put forward by Dame Carol. 

Having flagged her retirement, at 62, she and others were concerned that the elections obstacles facing women candidates were so overwhelming that not one female would succeed in 2012. 

They proposed creating 22 seats reserved for women candidates, one for each province, as a “special measure” until the culture became more inclusive.

The bill to amend the Constitution was the product of years of effort and dispute – leaders in PNG being as divided on affirmative action as they are anywhere – but the fractured women’s lobby had largely endorsed it, it had powerful male backers, and the first of two steps was finally before the parliament. Next would come an amendment to electoral law to create the seats.         

Women in national colours and bright meri blouses – the fashion staple endowed by the missionaries, whose legacy is widely regarded as having entrenched women’s lowly status – stacked the public gallery, hectoring the men on the floor, demanding their votes. 

Dame Carol tried to shush them, fearing their behaviour would tip waverers the wrong way. 

PNG men – and women – do not much like bikhet (bighead, arrogant) meris.