PNG women lag in equality

Editorial, Normal

The National, Wednesday 1st May 2013

After Prime Minister O’Neill spoke powerfully in favour of the constitutional amendment to allow the reserved seats, declaring that “only with the input of women will PNG go on and thrive to become a great nation”, the vote was 72 to two, a handful of members abstaining, and a couple of dozen absent.

Women in the gallery and on the steps of parliament erupted: dancing, weeping, embracing. 

Greens leader Dorothy Tekwie, a champion of the Bill, was in her distant village near Vanimo when word came. 

She could barely be heard above the racket.

“They were just jubilant, clapping their hands,” she told me when she found a quiet corner to take my call. 

“The men too shouting taim bilong ol meri (time for women).”

The president of the National Council of Women, Scholla Kakas, described the Bill as “a cry of the mothers of this nation… So many of our problems as a society are faced by women – health, violence, maternal mortality. Only women can understand what must be done to make things better”.

 Lack of basic medical care means the risk of dying from pregnancy in PNG is one in 26; in Australia it is one in 10,000. 

Domestic and social brutality – the epidemic manifestation of women’s lack of power and status – is an emergency in parts of the highlands where Medicine Without Borders teams deal daily with women chopped by bush knives, limbs broken, faces beaten, many suffering horrific sexual trauma and even torture.

The women dancing around the lake in their exotic plumage captivated a photographer from

But it was a mirage. 

Even as she fielded congratulatory calls, Dame Carol discovered the critical second part of the proposal had vanished from the notice paper. 

Unless the enabling legislation was also passed, the women’s seats would not be in place for the 2012 poll. 

She had been gazumped. 

Dame Carol today says she fears the Bill is “dead in the water”.

Since the election, the momentum for “special measures” has waned, and expert analysts are wondering whether a modicum of success, three women MPs, might unravel five years of hard slog for women’s representation which culminated in the reserved seats push.

One of the new women, Loujaya Toni, the minister for community development, responsible for the women’s portfolio, passionately condemned reserved women’s seats as 

unfair to men. 

She and her two female colleagues had come through against the odds, against men, earning respect, she said in parliament. 

They would educate others on how it could be done. 

There should be no “free ride” for women while men struggled for their mandate, she declared.

“This statement brought a loud uproar of laughter amongst male parliamentarians who happily agreed,” according to a PNG-FM radio news report. It was business as usual in the Haus Tambaran.

lJo Chandler is an award-winning freelance journalist and an honorary fellow of the Alfred Deakin Research Institute. She was a senior writer with the Melbourne Age before going freelance, reporting on issues across Africa, Antarctica, Afghanistan, Australia and PNG.