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Women get it - walk to equality must be a joint project with men

Winnie Kiap (Roland Kemp)WINNIE KIAP

Her Excellency Ms Winnie Kiap has been High Commissioner for Papua New Guinea in the United Kingdom since 2011. Ms Kiap is also chair of the Commonwealth Secretariat Board of Governors. She was previously secretary to the PNG National Executive Council. Her earlier career was in PNG’s Department of Trade and Industry and Investment Promotion Authority. Ms Kiap was emailed a substantial section of 'My Walk to Equality' prior to publication.

My Walk to Equality, edited by Rashmii Amoah Bell, Pukpuk Publications, 278 pages. Paperback $US10.53 or Kindle $US1.00. ISBN-10: 1542429242. ISBN-13: 978-1542429245. Available here from Amazon through Pukpuk Publications

THESE stories give me a sense of exhilaration as well as respect for these women writers and poets.

This group of mostly young writers has the courage to use literature as a means to participate in the conversation on a topic important not only in Papua New Guinea but around the globe.

They handle the issue of women’s inequality in PNG in an honest and sensitive manner. There is acceptance of our cultural background and acknowledgement that it shapes us. There are lessons from own-life experience illustrating that, as women emerge from that background, they have the right to make the choices to recreate themselves as they wish.

PNG has parallel societies or universes. In one society the woman is a passive participant with the important role of keeping the clan lines continuing into future generations, forced to do so as in Diddie Kinamun Jackson’s poem, Arranged to be Married.  

In the other universe, she is morphed into an active participant in the development of the entire country. She will keep clan lines going but her parents no longer have a say in which clan she must continue. She has a clear understanding of her potentials as well as clear recognition of the barriers preventing realisation of those potentials.

A very different person from the one she would have been had she not emerged from that first universe and made the transition.

As an older woman of PNG also pursuing change, I had a myopic view of a future in which women could define themselves in their own terms. Reading these excerpts I feel exhilarated in the realisation that this group of writers and poets represents the future.

The walk will be long because 80% of our population still live traditional customary lives and we belong there too. But the walk has considerably progressed.

Education is the catalyst for change.  Educated Papua New Guineans will appreciate what I see as parallel universes. Where, for example, I hold senior positions in the government but, on returning to my traditional and cultural settings, all veneer of leadership is put aside.  

With education, choices will be easier to make. The tentative nature of PNG society today will be replaced by one in which men and women will make clear choices without hindering each other’s rights and freedoms. This book exemplifies the anticipation of that educated critical mass. Its target is the literate.

Papua New Guinea does not have a monopoly on gender inequality. The United Nations’ sustainable development goals 5and10 underpin the significance of the matter that must be addressed universally. This is of paramount importance to the world. The thinking and action of this group of writers and poets contribute to addressing these goals.

Beliefs and practices that render the potential of half our population unrealised do not have a place in this world.  Men and women should no longer be straightjacketed into specific roles and expectations.

We make equal demands on what we think the country owes each of us – good health, education, appropriate level of living standard, opportunities for self-fulfilment.

But the potential of half of those who can make the country respond to such demands are unrealised. The country needs its entire human capital to carry it forward.

Pressure is also exerted on PNG by international mechanisms benchmarking gender parity or disparity, gender violence, child marriage, literacy, human rights and other criteria of country performance.

PNG was found wanting in achieving the millennium development goals. Inclusion of women’s potential in addressing sustainable development goals to address our domestic imbalance is non-negotiable. And the racy and quick rhythm of Vanessa Gordon’s prose-poem, Drumbeat, sets the pace for change.

The writing and poetry speak to all Papua New Guineans in what is best described as the ‘emerging middle class’ and, in this context, to all middle class women and girls.  We are all familiar with the issues, both in the traditional and customary settings and in the other universe we inhabit.

We cannot erase but tenderly embrace our idyllic childhood. The kaleidoscope of colours and memories and senses and feelings and conflicting cultures and acceptance crucial in our formative years was a process by which we were shaped.

Our roots anchor us firmly to where we were born or from where we take our identity and sense of belonging.

In Emma Wakpi’s My Relationship with Papua New Guinea, the imagery of the child being prised away from loving arms of grandparents onto an aeroplane to be taken to a town of little resemblance to the village just left is a poignant illustration of the transition from traditional setting and norms to different settings and norms.

Just as the prising away of the child can be brutal, so can the introduction to a different cultural way of life be confusing for a time.

In my view, the aeroplane represents education, the means of transition across parallel universes. Understanding of different ways in comparison to the traditional and customary ways of that other universe, results in an inevitable choice to accept the modern way of life.

Having tasted both worlds, it is not possible to choose to bring up one’s children in a traditional and customary setting, to subject one’s daughters to the forced and child marriage described in Arranged to be Married.

Inferred in Drumbeat - and paradoxically emphasised by its quick rhythm - is the slowness of change: anger at PNG society defining women as the expendable half and frustration at women being treated as subservient and less deserving.

These statements are echoed in Prof Betty Lovai’s Papua New Guinean Women in Leadership where she states that instructions by the Constitution and laws for equality and equal access are not having automatic effect.

These words are further echoed in the misogynous reactions to disrespect, apportioning blame on the female victims and “colourism” described in Tania Basiou’s Through the Camera Lens.

The passive acceptance or turning the blind eye on preventable deaths of women from domestic violence and the frustration of lack of remedial action vividly portrayed in Drumbeat is heartrending for women because only by the Grace of God were we born when we were born.  

The racy and rhythmic pace of the poem is the urgent call and keeping time to ending violence against women and girls.

As also described in Mixed-Race Markham Meri, Arranged to be Married and Gender Equality is Not a Zero Sum Game, change is not possible without partnership with men.

Formal education and parents assuring both female and male children of their equal place in the home and in the world will result in different perceptions of the world and people.

Are educated parents the force for this change or are they perpetuating the customary belief of importance of male children? Are parents demonstrating and encouraging the level of equality and partnership portrayed in Caroine Evari’s poem, Who Are You to Tell Me It’s Wrong?

Both men and women need to acknowledge that they complement each other, that they are life partners. Each is incomplete without the other. And on the higher plane of leadership, their complimentary perspectives are necessary.

The statement in Tanya Zeriga-Alone’s essay, Gender Equality is Not a Zero Sum Game, that the world has “evolved to be a woman’s world” should be taken with some measure of hesitation. Sustainable development goals 5 and 10 notwithstanding, forced and early marriage is still the norm in many parts of the world including PNG.

In countries under conflict in North Africa, women are subject of sexual violence explained away as unavoidable collateral damage. In Syrian refugee camps, young girls are forced to marry old men in order to escape being raped or used as prostitutes.

Female gender mutilation is a huge and confronting issue in many countries including Muslim communities in the UK. Gender equity on boards and equal pay are still current issues in the UK.

Gender Equality is Not a Zero Sum Game makes the distinct point of confusion in men as a result of the increasing visibility of women. This is recognised in the PNG context. It is also foreseeable that, as PNG evolves through the education and growth of its middle class, economic pressures on parents to provide the best care and opportunities for their children will be an equalising factor, bringing balance to the “disruption of the power balance” syndrome. This view is well articulated in Leila Parina’s story, A Paradigm Shift.

Another distinct point is that of separate roles of men and women predetermined by biology and physiology. These are the complementary roles which allow the species to exist and to create environments conducive to its existence.

In this modern environment, it is necessary for both men and women to appreciate this complementarity and to provide room for each other to take leadership roles subject to required attributes to lead.

This view is born out in A Paradigm Shift where the man’s self-esteem is unbalanced through loss of employment and in his recognition of the importance of his wife’s job to the family but also as a result of her self-fulfilment.

PNG, like many societies across the globe, is evolving at an ever increasing pace especially in this age of globalisation when information technology removes barriers and so brings communities around the world ever closer and provides more models and choices.

In all groupings, including marriage, there is always a leader as articulated in Gender Equality is Not a Zero Sum Game.

In most parts of PNG, societies are patrilineal in structure so land ownership is passed from father to son. Ownership is one of the most important factors determining the position of women in tribal societies. A woman cannot even own even her own children.

She was and is, on the other hand, owned; to be exchanged for profit as depicted in Leiao Geriga’s, One Day the Men all Bargained for a Price.

Men therefore are traditional leaders in any society. But physical combat for territory or defence of borders is no longer an important determinant of leadership or superiority. Intellectual competitiveness in job markets or in innovation is a factor of leadership.

And as women increasingly have access to opportunities, so will they increasingly take on leadership roles outside of their marriage.

Commentaries on leadership in PNG still emphasise political leadership as the indicator of women’s ability to lead.

That there are few PNG women in politics paints a picture of backward women. This is not necessarily so. Few women in politics could be symptomatic of voter backwardness and cultural barriers addressed in Papua New Guinean Women in Leadership.

Definitions of leadership need to be changed. Success in the competitive world of business is leadership. Women who have risen above the parapet in academia are leaders. Successful women in particular professions are in leadership roles. Sporting figures who fly the PNG flag are leaders. Creative people in the arts and fashion are leaders.

We have a small scientific cadre in our research institutions quietly searching for answers to our health problems, finding out what foods can withstand the changing climatic conditions or how they can earn the country better incomes. The writers of these essays and poems are leaders.

Pia Kila, in Madeline Ruga’s A Journey of Many Different Challenges, is an example of the women who open doors. The grandfather in Emma Wakpi’s A Tribute to My Fathers, whose humanity impacted on many lives around him. The father in the same essay who takes leadership in conflict resolution. These are leaders. Role models leading in our development efforts as well as setting standards and widening the horizons for future leaders.

Some interesting questions are raised by Marlene Potoura’s The New Generation of Sons: May They be Strong and Good. Is the ‘in-between man’ the product of his mother’s upbringing or of poor school systems?

Perhaps a causal factor resulting in the ‘in-between man’ could be an economic system that fails to provide opportunities for self-fulfilment and inclusion. (An ironic comment considering the subject of this exercise).

There is also the possibility that this class of men symbolises the unsuccessful transition between the parallel universes. The juxtaposing of the ‘in-between-man’ and the Goroka woman who successfully raises a family through humble gardening and marketing activities gives credence to the International Labour Organisation’s policy of dignity of labour. 

The ‘in-between man’ does have choices.

In conclusion, I see a common thread running through these essays, stories and poems. And that is the participation of men in the process of change toward equality for women.

Winnie KiapMen of the emerging middle class will want an intellectually compatible partner. In a partnership, economic pressures will dismantle a lot of the barriers to women’s advancement.

And certainly, the impact of globalisation is allowing Papua New Guineans to see and know other models of societal structures and will bring faster change.

While many insurmountable barriers still exist for the women and girls of Papua New Guinea, with an educated critical mass the change will come. The most important trigger to change is education. Equal access to education is non-negotiable.

Those who lead to engender and deliver changes must continue to do so. There is more work to do.


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Lina Wam


`Robin Lillicrapp

A praiseworthy, and commendable review of the emerging body of writing from a new generation of PNG authors.
Kudos to those who came before, and encouragement to current and prospective writers.

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