Raising the status of women in Papua New Guinea

By PNG Echo.

Was she joking?

The current three female MPs. in PNG parliament.
The current three female MPs. in PNG parliament.

She said that she didn’t think political parties should be forced, by law, to drag women into parliament against their will. It conjures up pictures of cave men dragging women screaming by the hair into the Haus Tambaran à la Fred Flintstone.

Delilah Gore, Honourable Minister for Religion, Youth and Community Development and Member of Parliament for Sohe, was commenting on proposed legislative changes before Parliament that would require political parties to ensure that 10 per cent of their candidates endorsed for national elections were women.

Does she really think that there aren’t any capable and willing women in the community that would and should jump at the chance and, should that not be the case, force would be applied?

Is this the calibre of female MP that getting into parliament the ‘old’ way delivers: an MP and Minister of the government, who, in her first term, gets referred to the Public Prosecutor by the Ombudsman’s Commission for possible breaches of the Leadership Code? She, who said, ironically, (did she even realise?) that females should demonstrate “leadership” attributes first: a legislator who has problems understanding basic legislation. (Mind you, the Hon Minister for Health, Michael Malabag called Tuberculosis a non-communicable disease last week in the press. Seems ignorance is not confined to some women.)

If you factor in the increasingly flaky Ms Kouza, the Hon MP for Lae and the fact that there are still only 3 female MPs out of a parliament of 111 – then you’d think there would be a better way to increase the representation of women and to attract a different (better?) style of parliamentarian. (Mind you, once again, perhaps the same could be said of the men.)

Prevention: better than a cure.

I am all for any measure of positive discrimination that would raise the status of women in Papua New Guinea because, in the main, I believe that the plight of women in PNG (and it’s dire) will not radically change until this happens.

It needs a three-pronged approach  – not unlike disease control.

Firstly the symptoms need to be taken care of – there are some wonderful organisations that do this including medical teams that patch up the beaten like Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) International’ and ‘Susumamas’ that provide healthcare for PNG women.

Ume Wainetti and her Family and Sexual Violence Centre is another fine example of an organisation ever-ready with help for women.

Emeritus Professor Judy Atkinson wants to heal the trauma
Emeritus Professor Judy Atkinson wants to heal the trauma

As for a cure, I immediately think of Professor Judy Atkinson and Courtney Honey who run We Al-Li along with their associate and tireless campaigner Lydia Kailap in Hoskins who provide ‘healing’ that addresses the underlying cause.

But as important as those two approaches are, the third stage is equally as vital, if not necessarily so urgent. The three could and should run in conjunction with each other.

Prevention is always so much better than a cure and for women in PNG the answer is an elevation of their status to a level where an automatic recourse to violence as a source of control is not only unacceptable but also unthinkable – where the right to control also becomes a complete anathema. It’s the equivalent of a vaccine.

In my opinion, the quickest way to do this is to promote women into leadership positions: positions of influence: positions of prestige – and that means government.

Two routes.

Employing legislation, there are two ways that this can happen – as described above (candidate endorsements) and reserved seats.

PNG has tried to legislate the latter: not many will have forgotten what happened to the 22 reserved parliamentary seats proposed for women in 2012.

Political parties, anxious to get the female vote, endorsed and promoted the legislation with the then Deputy Prime Minister, Belden Namah, even launching the women’s campaign.

Jubilation [temporary] as 22 reserved seats for women is passed.
Jubilation [temporary] as 22 reserved seats for women is passed.
And how the women danced and sang outside the parliament as the first reading got through with only 2 ‘nay’ votes from veteran MPs Bart Philemon and Bob Danaya (both of whom lost their seats in 2012 – Philemon to a woman) – only to be disappointed as in the subsequent voting sessions MPs absented themselves to avoid voting.


At least Philemon and Danaya had the courage of their convictions. I suspect that this was a cynical and well-executed ruse on the part of someone – I don’t know whom.

Today, opponents of positive discrimination legislation have a lot less to fear with this proposed new law than the last. For to make the practise of 10% female endorsement feasible, parties would have to field at least 10 candidates. Of the more than 40 parties registered at any given time, how many of them do that?

What’s more, we’re talking here of an ‘endorsement’ – an endorsement, even from the increasingly powerful PNC, is no guarantee of election. It will also be easy for the parties to undermine the intent of the legislation by allocating their feminine 10% the unwinnable seats. And if you think that’s never happened before, think again.

This notwithstanding, opponents of this piece of legislation are using the self-same rhetoric that they did in 2011/2012. Dr Michael Flood in his article Backlash: Angry Men’s Movements states that those claiming a ‘free ride’ and an ‘unfair’ advantage for females are ignoring that indeed their ‘unfair’ insistence on the status quo and claims to ‘equality’…

…are founded on a systematic denial of the power and privilege which many men receive and exercise. They ignore men’s dominance of powerful institutions and positions (institutional power), men’s power in relationships (interpersonal power), and cultural support for traditional masculine ideals and attitudes and men’s dominance of cultural production (cultural power).”

Female quotas have been successful in many developing nations in increasing the representation of females. In particular in the previously war-torn African nation of Rwanda where, post hostilities, a law was passed that required a 30% representation of women in politics and in government, including the judiciary.

As a result, today, their parliament is the only one in the world that has more female representation than male and where half of the 14 judges are female.

So successful has the strategy been that they are considering removing the quota system as now being unnecessary – it’s done its job.

As for endorsing candidates: in Scandinavia, the political parties agreed to do this voluntarily. It would be nice if that could occur in Papua New Guinea – but it won’t. In Scandinavia there was sustained and powerful pressure put on the parties by well-organised and powerful women’s pressure groups. There’s no such thing in Papua New Guinea.

Of women’s groups and co-optation.

The crowd watched as they burned, young mother Kepari Leniata alive. She had been accused of witchcraft
The crowd watched as they burned, young mother Kepari Leniata alive. She had been accused of witchcraft

There was one group that looked like it may have the potential – ‘Enough is Enough’ was their motto/slogan. The group was ‘Women Arise’ and was born of the atrocious circumstance of the murder of the young woman, Kepari Leniata, from the Western Highlands who was burned alive after having been sadistically and sexually tortured for hours prior by a group of men.

But Women Arise “came in like a lion” roaring its indignation (that it had every right to.) attracting attention, sponsorship, patronage (including the Prime Minister’s wife) and then just as quickly, like the month of March, “went out like a lamb.”

Women Arise was besieged by co-optation – not an unusual fate for many women’s groups worldwide.

It attracted many hangers on, who, attracted by its high profile, were determined to take advantage to lift their own profile – by attaching their names to it. Males, some, no doubt, parliamentary hopefuls, were seen endorsing and campaigning for Women Arise – proudly, out in front, visibly carrying the banner. Photo opportunities were abundant.

Women Arise lost the plot when it started to let itself be co-opted and when it let other causes overshadow the cause of women – which was, after all, its raison d’être.

Ironically, one of their more prominent male adherents, publicly threatened this writer with gang rape should she ever set foot in Papua New Guinea (the irony was lost on the upper echelons of Women Arise.) I’m sure, if asked, the threatening male will justify his words by saying it was retaliation for something I’d said. That he misunderstood and chose to take offense where none was intended is irrelevant…as is the fact that whatever I did or did not say does not excuse threatening me with sexual violence. This is the very behaviour Women Arise was convened to combat – not embrace.

But race won over gender and the protagonist was indeed excused and even embraced because he was PNGean and I was not. (But was I not female?)

The organisation was also besieged by rampant religion – Christianity. Gone was the passion to institute change and in came the rhetoric of “God will provide.” Well, I hate to tell you ladies, he’s failing you on all fronts.

It is an uneasy fit reconciling fundamentalist Christian beliefs with feminism and the rights of women. All religions are misogynist

Former United States president, Jimmy Carter, a devout Christian, wrote an article entitled ‘Losing my religion for equality’, where he said he could no longer adhere to a religion

…when the convention’s leaders, quoting a few carefully selected Bible verses and claiming that Eve was created second to Adam and was responsible for original sin, ordained that women must be “subservient” to their husbands and prohibited from serving as deacons, pastors or chaplains in the military service.”

Carter goes on to say:

At its most repugnant, the belief that women must be subjugated to the wishes of men excuses slavery, violence, forced prostitution, genital mutilation and national laws that omit rape as a crime.

And so racism and religion trumped women’s issues with Women Arise – in which case where’s their relevance? I mean, where are they on this issue of positive discrimination about to go before parliament. Their silence is deafening.

For that matter, where is ‘Women in Parliament’?

Namah and supporters at his residence in Gordons prior to Namah's attempted arrest
Namah and supporters at his residence in Gordons prior to Namah’s attempted arrest

Was it behind the proposed legislation? If so, why have they not been campaigning harder? Last time I saw Maria Hayes (of Women in Parliament) she had her arm around the then Opposition Leader, Belden Namah, being one of a few who were providing comfort and assurance before the police arrived to arrest him.

No, no, no, Maria, it should be the other way around – he’s supposed to be helping you – but he didn’t, did he? In fact, I know that whatever dirty deed was done regarding the 22 reserved seats, he was in on it. How could you embrace him?


The sisterhood sustains me. I don’t know where I’d be without the women who show me fierce loyalty and who, in me, have blind faith? But it’s different in PNG.

In PNG the accepted paradigm is that the sisterhood takes a poor second place to the getting, keeping and pleasing of a man. Women fight in the street over men – men let them.

Of the women murderers I interviewed in Bomana Prison a couple of years ago, a large proportion had killed their rivals – a second or subsequent wife or girlfriend. Why not their husband’s instead? (Although some had done that too.) All cases had to do with domestic violence – to be specific, violence of the male towards the female.

Mind you, one of these second wives would, at the behest of the husband, urinate on the first wife as the husband held her down. I’d have killed her too. What sort of women do this to each other and why?

The answer is simple, it’s the rivalry promoted when your existence and that of your children depend on having a man. It has to change.

Fighters for women's rights in PNG including former MP Dame Carol Kidu and the late Skola Kakas
Fighters for women’s rights in PNG including former MP Dame Carol Kidu and the late Skola Kakas

It’s not rocket science: solidarity is the key to what will bring in changes for PNG women. The workers of the world organised and sloughed off the yoke of their oppression by forming unions – PNG women can learn from their example. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel.

Come on ladies, you are half of the population and have immense power if you vote as a bloc – if only someone could organise that. It would involve getting some prominent women into positions of prestige and power to create the leadership that women will rally around – and then woe betide any man who dares to treat her as a second-class citizen to be bought, sold and beaten at whim.

Support this positive discrimination legislation – then insist on more.



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