The National,Friday 09th December 2011
THIS is a response to a number of letters to the editor concerning the proposed 22 reserved seats for women.
As a foreigner and an academic residing in PNG, I am pleased to learn of Prime Minister Peter O’Neill’s decision to push for the introduction of reserved seats for women.
But I am disappointed to read a number of poorly informed writers against this rather modest proposition.
The basic purpose of reserving seats for women is simple: to give women representation and participation in government that they otherwise lack and will be unable to achieve given current societal constraints.
It is tempting to suggest that women should just stand for election alongside men but given the fact that women have held less than 1% of parliamentary seats in PNG over the past decade, it is clear that there are very real barriers to women’s participation.
Similar measures to correct imbalances in female representation have been implemented in other countries (such as Rwanda, Uganda and Bangladesh) and, in this light, PNG’s move is hardly radical.
Although some feel that the issues confronting our men and women are the same, Papua New Guinean women confront a number of distinct challenges that men do not face.
In my time here, I have found that individuals readily acknowledge that PNG has a long way to go in terms of its treatment of women, although I imagine it would shock most citizens to know that their country ranks among the poorest in terms of gender equality.
For example, Dr Peter Barss (Health Impact of Injuries in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea: A Verbal Autopsy Study) found that in some parts of PNG, “the endemic severe violence to adult females appears to be unprecedented for a country not under active attack during time of war”.
Work by Susan Toft and others associated with the PNG Law Reform Commission has also shown just how widespread violence against women is across PNG.
This is perhaps the most dramatic example of the kind of inequality faced by women, though it is also not difficult to see the quotidian kinds of inequality that women confront, whether in carrying the burden of childcare and household management, or their marginalisation from virtually all the positions of power that impact their lives.
Barss found that because of the poor treatment of women, the suicide rate of PNG women “are among the highest ever reported” in the world.
Although the challenges confronting men and women here may be different in some ways, their futures are closely intertwined, such that advancing the status of women can only improve the lives of all citizens.
For example, empowering women and reducing gender inequality will help to control the worsening HIV/AIDS epidemic.
Likewise, evidence from elsewhere around the world suggests that when women are well represented in legislatures, governments attend more closely to social issues and spend more on essential services like healthcare.
PNG confronts many difficult challenges on its path towards development and introducing a handful of elected, reserved seats to give representation to women is not a panacea for them all.
Instead, it is but one admirable step on the journey towards equality and development, and one that should be embraced by all Papua New Guineans who have an interest in seeing their country progress.
Christopher AJL Little