This week, Papua New Guinea’s only female parliamentarian, Dame Carol Kidu, lost her portfolio after the dramatic overthrow of the Somare-Abal government. In 2007 Islands Business magazine declared her to be its Person of the Year and, to mark the occasion, she was interviewed by SAMISONI PARETI. To honour Dame Carol Kidu’s career as a highly effective minister, we republish extracts ….
HANDBAG BY HER SIDE and wiping her thin-framed glasses, Dame Carol Kidu is one of the world’s hopelessly-armed fighters.
To begin with, there is no army for her to lead, nor a financier with deep pockets to fund her cause. Her armoury of weapons is non-existent. And she’s white, and a woman.
Yet within this seeming paradox, lies the widow’s strength. For Kidu fights a different fight, one that doesn’t require guns and ammunition, or in the context of the country of her late husband and their children, bows and arrows.
There are no arms, just her strong debate skills. No war manoeuvring, just sharp intellect and a strong sense of justice and fair play.
For that fighting spirit, her never-say-die attitude, her sheer grit and determination to take on the might of Melanesia’s largest and most vibrant male-dominated society, for being the face and voice of the poor and the down-trodden, Kidu is the magazine’s unanimous choice for the 2007 Pacific Person of the Year.
For a woman of her stature, her work in social development is of gigantic proportion.
In the context of the islands of the Pacific, the problems in Papua New Guinea are immense and complex. It can even be deadly inside the sprawling shanty towns of Port Moresby or the remote corners of the Highlands. Yet, size it seems doesn’t matter to Dame Carol Kidu.
Slowly and determinedly, she is making a difference. And she is getting people including the male leaders of PNG to sit up and listen. Her community development ministry is now reclassified as a senior ministry….
Being the sole woman parliamentarian, the only woman cabinet minister and being white, Dame Carol Kidu makes no bone about where her allegiance and interest lies; fighting for the poor, the down-trodden and the unfortunate of a country she and her children have come to call their very own.
Thrust into national politics of Papua New Guinea following the sudden death of her husband in 1993, just six months after his term as chief justice was unfairly terminated, Kidu is synonymous with the fight against domestic violence, child abuse, HIV and AIDS, poverty alleviation and community empowerment in the country of her late husband and their children.
As the minister for social welfare and community development, Kidu has been the small ‘general’ leading from the front….
Nobody, least of all Kidu, needs reminding of the enormity of the task and the challenge.
For her, the fairy-tale [began] when the young, handsome Buri Kidu swept her off her feet with a rendition of the popular Neil Sedaka number, Oh Carol, at a school boot camp on Australia’s Gold Coast in the mid-1960s.
Later, when the idea of matrimony was raised in 1969, Buri laid everything bare about the difficult road with his Brisbane-born bride.
“Buri said, ‘Look, just understand one thing, if we marry, don’t ever ask me to choose,” Lady Kidu recalled in an interview she gave ABC TV’s Australian Story in 2004.
“And I said, ‘What do you mean?
“He said, ‘Don’t ask me to choose between you and my people. I’ll choose my people, I will not choose you.”
A trained school teacher, Dame Carol Kidu took up teaching in Port Moresby and later moved into writing school textbooks.
Made a widow suddenly with the death of Sir Buri in December 1993, Dame Carol Kidu could have taken the easy way out; pack her bags and move her family back to Brisbane. But she didn’t.
Even without her husband’s pension because he was terminated as Chief Justice two years short of the payment of his pension, Kidu had little time to grieve.
She formed the Sir Buri Heart Institute and took up employment as a research assistant for government minister Sir Moi Avei, a Motu villager like Sir Buri and a long-time family friend.
This was where she took the strategic decision to enter politics. She contested her first elections in 1997 and won, and she has been returned to parliament from the same Port Moresby South constituency—where her husband’s Pari village is located and where the family still lives —three times, the most recent being September this year.
“Learning to live in a village in a Motu society, in a very communal society from a western society, was hard.
“But it was more a gradual learning process and I had a very, very good husband.
“A very unique man and a very good mother-in-law who helped me learn how to re-socialise and I don’t know what I am now.
“People might look at my skin colour but I don’t know what I am now.”
She prefers to work behind the scene and to be more diplomatic about how she tackles issues that require resolution.
“Politically, that’s dangerous because you’re not recognised for what you’ve done,” Kidu told our publisher in an interview they did in Port Moresby in 2003.
“I’m very aware that being a woman, I’m not necessarily accepted as a spokesperson for a matrilineal society, so I’m very careful how I do it, trying to work behind the scene.”
Talking last month, Dame Carol Kidu says her tactics have not changed much.
“I’ve made a point of not trying to keep myself away from male politics, not to be seen in any way as trying to be vicious or threatening.
“I often have to kind of work indirectly but if that’s what’s necessary in the history of Melanesia, then that’s the way we have to work it.
“I think if I get too aggressive, it’s not the right way to approach it. I have to massage the male egos, I have to do a fair bit of massaging male egos and I’m getting tired of it, that’s why I want to leave politics.
“So yes a lot of behind the scene work, on people of influence to feel that it is their work and they initiate it.”
She is the only woman MP in PNG, and she heads a ministry that is generally associated with women.
“It just so happen that my ministry is the one I wanted because it’s my field of expertise. But in many ways it’s an injustice because it further stereotypes the place of women.
“That women look after women or women look after children’s affairs or women look after the marginalised.
“I want to see the day when we have a woman finance minister, a woman minister for mining because we have women, qualified women in all these fields.”
Kidu fervently believes that the country is only going to benefit with the involvement of more women like her in parliament….
“We may have a booming economy and also lots of money from minerals in PNG, but while they have been happening, we know there’s a social breakdown we have to deal with and we have to get more emphasis on the human infrastructure development of our nation.
“The physical infrastructure and the economic area, they can all be destroyed if we have a frustrated non-developed human infrastructure.
“Now we have had the budget session and it’s a very bold budget. We have a lot of money comparatively available from windfalls in mining and oil, but it’s not reflected in the social side of the budget.
“Although there are many new things in the budget like extra support for the district level and getting money down to the local level, it’s not translated into the areas of social development.
“My department has not done nearly as well as we had expected and we have to fight behind the scene to get the bureaucratic levels to re-adjust.
“They are talking very loudly about child protection, we passed a new Pikinini Act, a child welfare protection legislation in PNG, but somehow the child protection act allocation disappeared from the budget, so I have to fight for it behind the scene.
“We will get it I know but it should be there, it shouldn’t disappear at some process.
“So there’s a lot more to be done, we need to really have greater focus in those areas and I think it will only help if we get more women in parliament.”
Be that as it may, there is no denying that not only is Dame Carol Kidu publicly leading the fight for women, she is also fighting quietly from within….
Her work in the ministry has also been revolutionary in many ways, especially in the area of social welfare.
Turning down the Australian inherited system of welfare payments, Kidu with the help of her departmental chief secretary introduced a totally new system, one she is proud to say is most appropriate for PNG and perhaps for other islands of the Pacific too.
The biggest change in the new system is its recognition and utilisation of the two strong pillars of Melanesian society, the church and family relationship.
“For 30 years after independence, we didn’t have a public policy to strengthen family and the community and this is one of the reasons why we are having social breakdowns because we are not focusing on that unit which is so crucial for the future of PNG.
“It’s not a policy in which government has to do it all. But it’s really a policy that embraces and strengthens the good work already been done in the communities by the churches and NGOs.
“There are four main community priorities; and that’s community governance, really establishing good governance in the community and blending it in with traditional governance.
“Community learning and working on life-long learning policies because many children don’t even get into schools and those in schools they leave school often very early, so accessing the right learning opportunities and they didn’t exist except at very high cost, so community learning and development centres is another priority area.
“The third priority area is economic empowerment at community level and that’s how we can move into the income generating area.
“How we can develop the informal sector of our society because over 80% or 90% of our people actually earn their small income from the informal sector, may be through farming and selling it in the local market.
“And the fourth priority area is a safe and secure community environment.
“We’ve got a long, long way to go, we are well aware of that.
“We are still working on our tool-kits, and the materials that can be implemented by NGOs and churches.
“So government’s presence will start to be seen at the community level.
“There’s a major disconnect between community and government in many areas of PNG.
“The national government must recognise the importance of the community and help strengthen the community through NGOs and churches.”
Through her ministry and out of her own personal interest, Kidu is also at the forefront in the fight against domestic violence and HIV and AIDS.
“There is a psychology involved that has permeated urban life as well ethnic clashes.
“So we really need to work on this particular area of violence which is traditional here and we’ve got to focus very heavily on social values.
“We are at a stage where we really need committed implementation of the policies, otherwise, it could all fall apart.
“It will continue to fall apart but I believe very strongly that it’s not too late.
“Our people particularly here in PNG are extremely resourceful, extremely resilient and they come together in times of problems, deaths and issues like that.
“Right now, we have a disaster in Oro province, we have massive flooding, deaths and villages being swept away and you know people rally together because of that collective spirit.”
Her support for the fight against HIV and AIDS has been in two fronts for Kidu.
Not only is she a voice for the cause, but she is also pushing through new policies that will empower communities to have ownership of the campaign.
“My department will be running with a community methodology which has been developed in Africa.
“We are now in the process of using PNG Sustainable Development which is an offshoot of Ok Tedi Mining on developing the African CCE methodology into Melanesian society
“We are actually working on producing materials at present.
“There’s been a workshop completed in Goroka working on how we adapt that methodology. It’s really been well received.
“I’ve actually been to a workshop of CCE methodology and I think it’s a good direction, but we have to make sure we indigenise it.
“We can’t just transplant a methodology that is being used in other parts of the world.
“There are many methodologies that are suitable, but I think all methodologies are now heavily focused on community empowerment.
“There’s another AIDS community competency methodology that is being used by the Salvation Army.
“Some people are using the community theatre methodology.
“I think as long as they are all talking the same talk and doing the talk at community and family level, PNG will be moving in a good direction.”
Three five-year terms and two of those as a cabinet minister, public life is taking its toll.
Kidu believes her family has faced the brunt of her strenuous and stress-filled lifestyle which is why she has made the conscious decision to make her current term in parliament her last.
“I enjoy parliamentary work. I enjoy the challenge of legislative policy.
“I don’t think it should be as hard as it is.
“It can be very frustrating. May be if there were more women working in unity together on the floor of parliament, it would be easier.
“I love my electorate, Port Moresby South.
“It is a very tough electorate, an urban electorate, probably the poorest electorate in the city of Port Moresby, so we have all the multiplicity of tribes here, we have urban poverty and it’s a very difficult electorate.
“We don’t have any welfare system and a welfare system will not be an answer.
“So it’s a tough road and I want to be able to focus back on my family, my grandchildren. I want to be able to write books, I want to be able to do some study, may be work regionally, make my experience available on a regional level.
“I think the important thing in leadership is knowing that there is always a time to leave, to handover.
“So because I’m finding the electorate so demanding and sometimes frustrating, I have to look at my exit strategy but that has to include getting some women on the floor.”
For members of her family, Dame Carol Kidu thinks they have been impacted adversely by her political life.
“Her life basically for the last 10 years has been put on hold and she has been kind of managing the family while I’m in politics.
“I’m sure my children get fed up with me helping people in the electorate constantly and then I get angry with them for something they ask.”
So will PNG see a change and for the Kidu line to continue in public service?
“I do not think any of them, certainly not my children, would be interested.
“They have seen enough of the demands of politics in the last 10 years and will probably be all relieved when I leave politics!”
Source: Islands Business