By HILDA WAYNE of Curtin University, Western Australia
In an interview with the Western Independent, Premier Giddings said: “As a woman born in the Eastern Highlands of PNG, and as a member of the Tasmanian Parliament, I have watched with pride the recent PNG elections where a record number of women have been elected to Parliament, including Julie Soso now Governor of the Eastern Highlands. Considering much of PNG society, especially the Highlands, operates under patriarchal structures, this is a huge achievement.”
“Ideally, Parliaments should reflect the make-up of their communities and with women consisting of almost half of the population in PNG, it is important women are represented in this important democratic institution,” Premier Giddings said.
Soso tried contesting three elections against strong male contenders in the Eastern Highlands regional seat and lost those until this year. After much perseverance and a lot of hard work, she finally convinced voters it is time for change. Soso has earned respect and a chance to represent her people in Parliament.
“The door is now open for all women in the country as people begin to realise that women are just as capable of being good leaders in PNG. This is the change we have always wanted,” said Julie Soso, a former radio broadcaster who decided her voice will be best heard on the floor of PNG’s National Parliament, going down in history as the country’s first woman governor.
When speaking with the Western Independent from PNG, Governor Soso said her priority would be to develop the province’s poor infrastructure so that people are able to get their produces easily to markets and schools and hospitals get much needed support from the Government.
A 2002 report by University of PNG academic, Dr. Orovu Sepoe said the only time PNG ever saw women representation in its Parliament was in 1977 when there were three women, however this did not encourage more women to enter into politics.
“Despite women’s persistent losses in successive PNG national elections since 1977, their struggle is relentless and their spirit has not been stifled,” says Dr. Sepoe, in her report.
The 1997 elections saw the emergence of one strong willed woman, Queensland-born Dame Carol Kidu who is a household name everywhere in PNG. She was a lone woman MP for the past 15 years until her retirement from politics this year. She served as a minister from 2002 to 2011 and was leader of the Melanesian Alliance party. She also served as leader of the Opposition early this year.
Dame Carol spearheaded a bill which would have seen a total of 22 seats set aside for women in Parliament as PNG was way below its UN obligation to have a third of its Parliamentary seats for women. An all-male Parliament didn’t see the bill get passed as law.
The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) was adopted in 1979 by the UN General Assembly and entered into force on 3 September 1981. The PNG Parliament ratified CEDAW without reservations in 1995 and to fulfil this obligation a third of its Parliamentary representation have to be women. PNG has fallen way short of that target.
“Women in PNG have been used and abused for many years now and we are accepting this because of beliefs passed on from generations. However this must change and now we are seeing exciting times for politics in PNG with the election of our new female MPs,” University of Western Australia PhD graduate Gabriel Sion says. Mr. Sion has worked with former Minister Dame Carol in policy formulation. He says the challenge is in the way people continue to view the role of women in this country. He believes educating the younger population also plays a part in raising awareness on the leadership abilities of women.
Mr. Sion says international conventions that the PNG government has entered into regarding the rights and opportunities of women are not becoming reality.
According to an Amnesty International report, discrimination against women in PNG remains a ‘grave concern’. Harmful norms, practices and traditions contribute to the negative stereotyping of women and to widespread discrimination against them in almost all facets of society.
New Minister Loujaya Toni is now responsible for the ministry once held by Dame Carol. Toni says women in PNG need to do more by aligning themselves with political parties through fundraising, and actually being on campaign trails like the men. She says from her experience it was not an easy task having to go up against former sitting member Bart Philemon who was member for two terms.
“We have to break the male Melanesian mindset and earn respect. Respect is earned. You have to speak like the men do, walk the campaign trail and convince your voters. People in your community have got to see you there at their level and actually working with them. From this you will begin to earn people’s trust and respect,” says Toni.
The campaign for Toni was a family affair, where her husband was campaign manager from the beginning and is now Chief advisor in the ministry she now holds. She believes good leadership starts in the home first and foremost.
“If your children and husband think you are a good leader and you’ve shown your leadership qualities to them and they trust you, people will also trust and respect you out there,” she says.
The country’s politically appointed positions from the national Parliament to provincial assemblies and local level governments are fiercely contested by men. Deeply entrenched cultural beliefs further promotes the mentality that women belong in the home and therefore should not hold high positions or be seen or heard in the public arena.
United Nations Country Representative Mr. David MacLaclan-Karr says the win by the three women increases dramatically the level of women representation and also it’s the most number of women in PNG’s Parliament since 1975 when PNG first gained independence. He says the UN sets a goal of one third of seats in any country’s parliament should be female and although in PNG this was way below target it was also very positive.
“There were fears that we would not have any women in Parliament but we are now very excited and relieved that women’s voices will be back in the national legislature. PNG is in a situation where people do not have confidence that women can actually do a good job in parliament.
“I think these three women are dynamic and that they are going to do a very good job. People will start to see them as effective leaders equally capable to any of their male counterparts if not better and that will encourage the public to change their perceptions of women as being unelectable or not good leaders,” says Mr. MacLaclan-Karr.
As the three new MPs walked into Parliament for their first sitting after elections, the rousing welcome they received from the Prime Minister Peter O’Neill, their male counterparts and the public was proof that these were indeed dynamic women who have earned their seat in a Parliament representing nearly 7 million people.
“We are all looking at ourselves as leaders. Not as men or women. We have gained a lot of respect from our male colleagues in Parliament who see us as partners in development working for our people. Women need to start telling themselves that they can do it too. And it’s a challenge to the three of us too.
“We have to demonstrate to the country, to our people and show them that we are capable of bringing services to them just as equally as the men,” says new MP Hon. Gore.
She says a lot of women held back contesting in the recent elections but people have finally changed. She said the new members are more well educated and it makes a big difference when people’s mindset and attitudes change as well.
“These women serve as an inspiration and example for other young PNG women aspiring to enter politics. In Australia, where we now have a female Prime Minister and Governor General, it is easy to take the significant progress made by women in politics for granted. It is great to see this change now occurring in PNG,” Premier Giddings concluded.
This article was originally published in the Western Independent, a newspaper produced by Journalism students of Curtin University, Western Australia.