Pacific Islands Development Program/East-West Center
With Support From Center for Pacific Islands Studies/University of Hawai‘i


By Patrick Kaiku


PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (PNG Post Courier,) – Why is gender equality in governance relevant in our time? Political leaders should not have to be reminded of the need for equal gender representation in PNG’s political institutions. The Westminster system that we inherited introduced the democratic principle of equal representation of diverse interests and views, including gender issues in our political arena.

In PNG, there is no equal representation as it relates to gender. So how has the lack of political power in Parliament and provincial legislatures translated into socioeconomic development for Papua New Guinean women?

Is there any correlation between the lack of political power and the plight of women in PNG? What political gender legacy are we leaving for future generations? The present generation owes it to the next to set the foundations for the realization of gender equality in the formal arenas of politics. Delaying the facilitation of gender equality in politics will mean delaying any realization of the intentions of s.55 of the Constitution.

Socioeconomic and political status of women

Women comprise about half of PNG’ ever-increasing population of some 5 171 548 people. However, they contribute more than half of the productive capacity of the economy. They are employed in skilled, supervisory, or managerial positions in the formal sector, and have a great effect on production.

The majority of PNG’ rural female population plays a very important role in economic activity in the rural-dominated agricultural sector. A World Bank report estimated that, on average, women provide between 45 and 70 per cent of agricultural labor, producing food crops (traditional gardening), cash crops, marketing surplus food, and rearing small livestock and poultry.

In the health sector, the HIV/AIDS epidemic poses a serious threat to women. The National AIDS Council and National Department of Health Quarterly Report 2004 indicated that some 11,139 people were diagnosed with HIV/AIDS, of which 46 per cent were females.

Given the biological significance of women as child-bearers, the HIV/AIDS virus passed on through mother-to-child transmission raises serious concerns for PNG’ future human resource base. It would add to the existing maternal mortality rate which is consistently high, with an estimated eight maternal deaths per 1000 births overall, and up to 20 deaths per 1000 in some rural areas. More orphans, without the guiding roles played by mothers in the early formative years of their young lives, would place a major strain on the socialization process in our communities in subsequent years.

Likewise, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, if unrestrained, will increase the existing gender disparities in education between boys and girls. More young girls will forego their education to stay at home to care for sick family members and assume household responsibilities.

In the education sector, steps have been taken to "universalize education" through the Government’s "Education for All Strategy", whereby more girls are enrolled in the lower education sector. However, few continue to Grade 11 and tertiary education, given the entrenched socio-cultural barriers and the roles and responsibility expected of girls in their households, and the level of family support to girls’ educational pursuits. This is compounded by the lack of any specific policies for girls to encourage their schooling, without denying their rights to education.

A recent UNDP report stated that the female ratio for primary and secondary education was 85 per cent and 65 per cent, respectively, of the male enrolment ratio. This reveals the high number of girls being enrolled for primary-level education, but not continuing to higher level studies.

There is no sign of relative national progress in the literacy rate for women. In the 2000 National Census, the literate female population was about 50.9 per cent, up from 40.3 per cent in 1990. The saying, "if you educate a woman, you educate a nation", has realistic inferences for PNG in terms of the health and welfare of its human resources. This lifestyle can only be lived under a political system that knowingly marginalizes women’s political influence.

Increasingly, in PNG’s political anthropology, the political landscape resembles the "big man" system of leadership.

This biased form of politics, where inconsiderate "machos" hold power, reinforces the insensitivity towards the development of women. There is no hope of wholesale human progress and vibrant functioning democracy under such a system, as women are either invisible actors or mere statistics in the country’s development equation. This is a residue of the leadership style of many traditional Papua New Guinean societies where women rarely have a voice.

This primitive patriarchal system has no place in the nation’s balanced progression in the 21st century. As a result of international collaboration among state actors and international NGOs, the spread of information, and the globalization of the human rights ideology, women’s rights are persistently projected onto the domestic sphere of nation-states. Political representation and access to political power is one aspect of that human right.

Relevance of political power for women

Political power in National Parliament or provincial assemblies must address the peculiar issues from women’s perspective. In a recent study to gauge the impact of HIV/AIDS in Uganda, Ms Francisca Semoso, the Deputy Speaker of the Autonomous Bougainville Government, stated that, "Uganda was a success story in the fight against the HIV/AIDS epidemic because there was a fair representation of women in their parliament".

PNG has a lot to learn from the experiences of such countries in relation to gender representation in Parliament. Uganda’s constitutional quota system assigns a parliamentary seat from each of the 39 districts to be reserved for women, resulting in an increase in women’s political representation. Other women can be elected to Parliament on the non-gender reserved seats.

Comparative international studies in developed and developing countries have shown mixed results in relation to the impact of female representation in Parliament. One method was based on comparing the key socioeconomic developmental variables, such as women’s participation in the labor force, the ratio of women’s literacy to men’s literacy, and the ratio of university-educated women to university-educated men.

Many countries have started to work towards fulfilling their international obligations and objectives such as the Millennium Development Goals and the 1995 Beijing World Conference on Women. However, in most cases, female MPs have not succeeded in putting women’s issues on national agendas, or in bringing out the gender dimensions of seemingly gender-neutral policy decisions.

There is an emerging consensus that is relevant for PNG. The immediate facilitation of equal political representation at the national level or provincial level should be seen as a direct intervention in the evolution of the political system. Constitutional quotas are one means of kick-starting the process of female participation in national politics. Through this cycle, women and men will gain confidence in women, thus opening up more avenues for them. The benefits may not be immediate, but it is essential that women make significant headway into the formal political arena.

[Patrick Kaiku is a cadet researcher in the Political and Legal Studies Division at the National Research Institute.]

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