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'Taim blong ol meri': Time for women in PNG

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COMMENTS

24 November 2011 12:38

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

Yesterday PNG did away with the dubious distinction of holding one of the worst records in the world for female representation in parliament. Seizing what may have been the last chance for PNG's women to politically weigh in on an uncertain future, parliament passed Dame Carol Kidu's longstanding Equality and Participation Bill, by a majority of 72 votes to 2.

Yesterday's decision can be taken as a generally positive indicator of things to come in PNG. Saddled with a resource curse, instability, crumbling social services and a mass of ethno-linguistic divisions that make nation-building at times a near-impossible task, PNG's challenges are far from over. But it is better equipped than ever to tackle them. Gender-equitable leadership will contribute to more productive, balanced and representative policymaking, and quotas will serve as a powerful way of achieving this.

Kidu's bill has been around in one form or another since as early as 2005, but it enjoyed little support under previous Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare. That his successor was able in a matter of months to move many of those who had rejected the bill is also a positive indicator of the powerful change that current PM Peter O'Neill is capable of instigating in a political system long dismissed as too corrupt, patriarchal and dysfunctional to be capable of progress.

Kidu's bill has not been without its detractors. Quotas like PNG's are often dismissed as anti-meritocratic, unwelcome, counter-productive, expensive and unfair. Kidu's detractors have held that any woman who succeeds in a system with quotas will have aspersions cast on her success; that colleagues will resent her, and children will grow up thinking that women need special treatment to succeed.

Kidu's bill will rectify a longstanding imbalance in PNG politics by creating 22 additional provincial seats to be contested exclusively by women but voted on equally by both genders. From mid-2012, women in PNG will begin to fight at the highest level a socio-institutional apparatus that enforces and legitimises the often violent subordination of women.

This is what quotas have achieved in Rwanda, where women now make up 55.6% of government (thereby exceeding the mandated level of female representation). The legal apparatus that enabled them to do so may have been unmeritocratic, but the ends it served abound with merit. Rwandan women are now able to inherit land, are protected by laws aimed at ending domestic violence and child abuse, and no longer require their husbands' signatures on bank cheques.

Developing countries like Rwanda and now PNG aren't just overtaking the developed world when it comes to economic growth. In 2011, a number are already nipping at the heels of most of the OECD and in some cases even Scandinavia when it comes to ensuring gender-equitable representation in government. Of the 40 countries in the world that rank highest for gender-balanced parliaments, 25 are developing. Some of the best-performing African states are those which have women making up more than 40% of parliament.

Beyond normative value, gender equality is just smart economics. This is the emerging consensus in international development circles, and it's a no-brainer. Gender inequality is just inefficient.

Those who protest quotas as unmeritocratic are perhaps ignoring the fact that societies are fundamentally unmeritocratic in themselves. Children who grow up with adequate nutrition, that have educated parents who don't abuse them and can afford high quality health and education have statistically higher chances of succeeding in life, and gaining positions of power. Being male helps a great deal too. Sometimes societies need unmeritocratic policies to rectify these unmeritocratic biases, and none more so than PNG.

As Kidu's supporters rejoiced, Taim Blong ol meri now in PNG. The time for women has come. O'Neill and Kidu have struck at the heart of inequality in PNG, and the nation's future is all the brighter for it. 

Photo by Flickr user j3tdillo.

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