Women’s Bill is vital

Normal, Weekender

The National, Friday 16th December 2011

THE passing of the Equality and Participation Bill to guarantee women in PNG up to 22 seats in parliament, one seat in each province after the National Election next year, is a historical milestone and a moment of triumph that should be celebrated and supported by every Papua New Guinean, director of the National Research Institute, Dr Thomas Webster said.
The new law guarantees that up to 22 electorates will be reserved for women, however laws are yet to be tabled in parliament to determine the boundaries of the new seats.
Webster said this is essential because without these laws in place before June next year, intending women candidates will not be able to run for elections. 
These bills require the support of all Papua New Guineans, especially through their electoral representatives.
In more than 36 years and since Papua New Guinea gained independence, only four women have been elected to parliament. This year, Dame Carol Kidu, an advocate of the bill, is the only, woman in parliament.
Webster said it is our hope that the bill is realised and that the input and efforts of more women in parliament will complement the efforts of fellow male politicians.
“This would ensure that Papua New Guinea can benefit immensely from a well-represented parliament that looks at the broader interests of all Papua New Guineans at the highest level of decision-making which will affect the whole country.
As Prime Minister Peter O’Neill stated in his introduction of the bill to parliament: “Only with the input of women will PNG go on and thrive to become a great nation.”
We welcome the bill with great optimism and awareness that women would bring a whole new perspective to the floor of parliament. Indeed, more women in parliament would add some new dimensions to the policy agenda. There are development issues to be highlighted and social indicators that need to be addressed, including maternal mortality, infant mortality and gender-based violence, to name a few. Through the reserved seats, womenfolk then get to become equal partners in the development process. 
While having said this, the NRI is of course also fully cognisant of the views expressed by the wider public against the merits of the bill. Some opponents have labeled the bill an expensive exercise, saying that the extra seats would incur costs of up to K 25 million that could otherwise be spent on “needy” areas. Thus, the extra seats reserved for women are, for them, an extravagant exercise.
A particularly strong and persuasive argument by opponents of the bill, is that women have not been deprived of their rights to contest parliamentary seats and therefore, they should not be given a free ride by being reserved 22 of the highest seats in the land.  The issue however, is that given the election trend in PNG for more than three decades, waiting on polling results to produce female representatives in Parliament would be a very futile exercise. 
Papua New Guinea’s electoral behaviour, imbued in a strong male-centered political culture, is not likely to change the trend anytime soon.  The male dominance is partly a cultural factor where men are considered natural leaders and decision makers.  It is also valid to say that male dominance is very much a byproduct of the manner in which society is changing. 
While politics in developed countries is often vilified as a dull vocation, it conveniently serves as a means for individuals to acquire greater prosperity and social status, particularly in developing countries like Papua New Guinea.  The stark reality for Papua New Guinea therefore, is the case that stiff electoral competition mainly among male candidates for access to the state institutions is what ultimately causes womenfolk to be under-represented in parliament. 
Electoral data show that female candidacy for national elections have showed a small marginal increase since 1975, out of which there were four female parliamentarians: Nahau Rooney, Josephine Abaijah, Carol Kidu and Waliyato Clowes.  That is a serious asymmetry by anyone’s definition against the 50% female segment of the national population.
While welcoming the Equality and Participation Bill, the least among the issues that parliamentarians should concern themselves with is the costs of the 22 extra seats.  The real challenge however, is the need to demarcate a clear sphere of responsibility for the women parliamentarians. 
As it stands, the 109 MPs is already a crowded field for the limited number of ministries and perks and privileges to be passed around.  There is also the danger in relation to possible duplication of responsibilities with existing open and provincial Members. 
Finding the right political equilibrium is therefore paramount for the effective and productive collaboration of both men and women in PNG politics and for the success of the Government of Papua New Guinea, Webster said.