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Tuesday 22 Aug 2017 | 21:42 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 22 Aug 2017 | 21:42 | SYDNEY

Last chance for PNG's women?

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21 November 2011 17:28

Danielle Romanes is an intern with the Lowy Institute's Myer Foundation Melanesia Program.

Unresolved constitutional crises in PNG threaten to overshadow a vital parliamentary session this week. Having just graduated from an otherwise relatively successful first 100 days in office, Prime Minister Peter O'Neill's government will be trying tomorrow to deflect criticism from a destabilising wrangle that occurred between the executive and judiciary while O'Neill was attending the APEC leaders' meeting in Hawaii.

Simultaneously, the government needs to enact legislation to create two new national provinces, consolidate support for the 2012 budget hearing next Tuesday, and – most importantly – pass Carol Kidu's longstanding bill on reserved seats for women in parliament, facing its critical second hearing.

PNG stands among a number of countries in our region with the worst records in the world for both gender violence and female representation in government.

The latter inhibits governments from acting decisively on the former, because in Melanesia gender violence and sexism are far from the exclusive domain of the poor. Men in positions of power are able to abuse it, and they do so with relative impunity. A recent and very public illustration appeared in the case of Joy Wartovo, whose policeman husband violently abused her over a number of years, but who has been repeatedly shielded from prosecution by colleagues.

Gender inequality is deeply entrenched in the political fabric of PNG society, with certain cultural practices such as bride price locally cited as promoting a view of women as second-class people with no community standing. Seen as property of their husbands, two out of three women have experienced domestic violence and 50% have experienced forced sex. Horrifically, a 1994 survey found that 60% of interviewed men reported having participated in lainap (gang rape) at least once (see p. 10).

Kidu's bill seeks to counteract this systematic disempowerment of women. If passed, her bill will create 22 additional provincial seats in parliament reserved exclusively for women, but voted on by both genders.

The basic idea is of obvious merit for PNG, but it has repeatedly failed to capture broad-based support from the men which dominate government. The bill has been around in one form or another since 2005, and the fact that it has survived this long is testament far more to the unremitting energy that Kidu has devoted it than to any broader political enthusiasm for women in parliament.

Kidu is due to retire next year, and when she goes the proposed bill will lose a powerful champion, as will women’s issues more broadly. It seems unlikely that any women will replace her in the absence of quotas, and so it is all the more vital that Peter O’Neill remembers his claimed support for the reserved seats when parliament opens tomorrow. With national elections scheduled for mid-2012, female candidates are rapidly running out of time to campaign for seats that are yet to come into existence.

Photo by Flickr user kahunapulej.

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