It is time, we, the country, listen to the voices of women, writes Dr STEVEN WINDUO
PAPUA New Guinean women were in parliament since 1961. A simple Papua New Guinean village woman made history that even some of the history books, except for Eric Jones’s book on Dame Alice Wedega have no records of, let alone celebrate the feat accomplished by a pioneer woman in our midst.
PNG women have been asking their country to listen to what they have to say about themselves. We have not been listening. We have been assuming their voices all along. In so doing we have denied women to speak for themselves.
In her autobiography, Listen My Country, Dame Alice Wedega answers one of the moral question of our time asked by Gayatri Spivak, an Indian-born post-colonial literary critic based in USA: Can the Subaltern Speak? Can PNG women speak for themselves? In her life and in her book, Dame Alice, pleaded with her country to hear the voices of women. The book was published in 1981, a first by a Papua New Guinean woman.
Dame Alice was born in 1905 to Wedega Gamahari and Ema of Alo Alo village in Milne Bay province. She went to school at Kwato mission school led by Cecil Abel of the London Missionary Society fame.
In a book on colonial impact between 1884 and 1984 Dr Anne Dickson Waiko and Prof Tony Deklen made scanty references to Dame Alice’s part in the 1961 Legislative Council.
Dame Alice did so much in her lifetime by speaking for our women in international gatherings in New Zealand, India, Sri Lanka and in Europe. A pioneer member of the Legislative Council between 1961 and 1964, she was one of the nine native representatives during the Australian colonial administration.
Dame Alice’s life story is exemplary of a colonised Papua New Guinean woman’s ability to rise above the ordinary to transcend all expectations by participating in a political process dominated by white Australian males. She worked with Sir Cecil to bring Christianity to Abau and parts of Central province in 1935. She founded the Ahioma Training Centre in the early 1960s to train women welfare assistants in Papua New Guinea. In 1952 she represented women’s rights at the Pan Pacific Women’s conference in Christchurch, New Zealand. Later in 1952 she led the Moral Re-armament group to India and Sri Lanka.
Her story is brought up again in Deklin’s discussion on the constitutional development, especially for a home-grown constitution, in PNG between 1962 and 1975. Following World War II Papua New Guineans played no part in decision-making in terms of constitutional changes until 1964. During this time the Legislative Council, created by the Papua New Guinea Act 1949, was the body advising the Administrator on the running of the Territory Administration. This Act was the basic colonial Constitution until it was repealed in 1975.
Only three Papua New Guineans were nominated on the Legislative Council of 29 members since 1951. The Legislative Council Ordinance 1951, however, prohibited them from voting or being elected on the grounds that they were “natives.”
This remained until 1960 when nine additional members were added in the new Legislative Council. The significant constitutional change in 1960, according to Deklin, was “the principle of indirect election of native members of the Legislative Council authorised by the Legislative Council Ordinance 1960.”
The climate in the early 1960s was such that the Australian government wanted the indigenous representatives to vote with them on any major legislative changes because the administration chose them for such purposes. Of course, we now know, that Dame Alice did vote if she felt it was right. She voted against the administration if her conscience wins, as was the case against the Bill on Liquor Licensing in 1962.
In the Legislative Council of 1961 there was the sense of feeling that Papua New Guineans must take control of the future development of the Constitution. As a member to the Legislative Council, Dame Alice had the opportunity to vote for any legislative changes that would have a dramatic impact in the lives of Papua New Guineans. One such important vote was on the formation of the Select Committee on Political Development on Mar 9, 1962. Of course, later in the political development of PNG, in the 1964 and 1968 House of Assembly new Constitutional Development Committees were formed, headed by Sir John Guise and Paulus Arek, respectively. The last, but most important committee, known as the Constitutional Planning Committee of 1972 was chaired by Michael Somare and later by John Momis.
By this time, Dame Alice was out of the political scene. She resigned from the Department of Welfare Services and went back to missionary work in 1972. She was awarded the MBE (Member of the British Empire) that same year. Be it national politics, public service, or missionary work, Dame Alice had been a stout ambassador for women’s voices in PNG for many years.
Her history reminds me of the present political and social climate. The efforts to have three women members nominated to Parliament have come under a lot of scrutiny from the public, politicians, women’s groups, and NGOs. The decision to have women nominated to Parliament or voted in remains a political hopscotch.
At this time of Independence we have to remind ourselves that women, through the likes of Dame Alice Wedega, Dame Josephine Abaijah, Nahau Rooney, Matilda Pilacapio, Annie Moaitz, and Lady Carol Kidu have been wrestling with the bulls of PNG politics since 1961.
I do not profess to know constitutional law or legislative processes, but my conscience tells me that women must speak for themselves with their own voices and conscience in the National Parliament.