The National, Friday 25th November 2011
A FIRST hurdle has been passed in the Equality and Participation Bill to give women a greater say in parliament.
The debate relating to this has been intense if one has been following the letters sent to the editors of the print publications and listening to talkback programmes on national radio.
After an initial upwelling of support, most of the latest comments have been against the move that is currently on its way to become law in parliament.
Many see in the move, which is touted to end discrimination against women in the political decision-making process in the country, as itself being discriminatory.
Proponents of this line of thinking argue, with some merit, that the move is discriminatory in that it gives women special treatment as if they were a lesser or minority grouping when they are not and that they ought to be treated as equals to men.
They claim further that such a law discriminates against men. They claim further that it makes nonsense of democracy and the principle of universal suffrage at the polls. There is much merit in these arguments.
There is merit too in the arguments by proponents of the move that such a law is needed to end the stranglehold men have had on political power; that if men are the head of the family, then what has been absent from PNG politics for so long is the heart which is where the woman’s best attributes lie.
This newspaper chooses to side with the latter group. PNG custom has not prepared the landscape well for the kind of participatory government modelled on the Westminster parliamentary democracy. What has taken generations to develop in England and Europe was imposed lock, barrel and stock upon a population not in the least prepared for this kind of government.
PNG accepted the foreign government system, formalised it in a constitution, and added its own customary practices that it never quite developed as the underlying law.
One of those unwritten practices was male dominance in decision-making, a vile perhaps but important tenet of Melanesian custom. It had its uses in years past. Men needed to make decisions to protect the tribe, women and children. Women’s roles, equally important, belonged in the house and garden.
Many important decisions affecting the welfare of tribes were made in the house and garden, by the womenfolk talking to their men folk in private to be sure, but they were always announced by the men. The practice continues today so women might not take the public credit but they do on many an occasion influence and, indeed, make some of the important political decisions, simply because a man does discuss affairs of state with his best friend and partner, his wife.
But the physical absence of women from parliament and on the boards of companies and such like in the modern context is worrying. And, leaving it to the time factor and education to correct this trend does not seem to have worked since.
Today, 36 years after Independence, women representation has not grown as one would have hoped. In 1968, there was a woman elected to parliament and, in 2011, we still have only one woman in parliament.
All that said, the Equality and Participation Bill before parliament must have one important provision which is missing.
It must be time-bound, or a time-lock if you like.
What is most important is to expose women as political leaders on a grander scale than is presently the case.
For a period not exceeding three parliamentary terms, this special provision for exclusive seats for women in parliament must exist.
At the end of the third term of parliament, the provision for reserve seats should lapse automatically. By then, people would have seen women leaders in action and would be able to select them running against their male counterparts in normal elections.
If no such provision were included in the law, then there will arise a time in the not-too-distant future when it will be men who cry discrimination because they would be unfairly discriminated against by a particular law for reserved seats for women.