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Status of women in 'the people’s economy’

Michelle Rooney - "Women are the target of police and municipal authorities who often resort to violence" 

| Centre for International Private Enterprise

An abridged extract from ‘Papua New Guinea: Centering the ‘People’s Economy’ in Covid-19 Recovery’. You can link here to the full paper

WASHINGTON DC – Papua New Guinean women are the backbone of the PNG ‘people’s economy’, but they face cultural and social challenges that undermine their resilience and ability to sustain their engage in the economy.

They are the primary caregivers for the country’s burgeoning young population.

The maternal mortality ratio is 215 deaths per 100,000 live births and the adolescent birth rate is 52.7 births per 1000 women aged 15-19 years old. An estimated two thirds of PNG women experience some form of violence in their lifetime.

Women play a central role in family livelihoods, providing important labour in the agricultural export sector and domestic food production.

Patriarchal social and cultural norms and patrilineal land tenure practices entail gendered power dynamics that marginalise women from land and other resources, and disproportionately burden them with labour.

Much of the value that women contribute is under-accounted for in monetary terms but important in terms of social safety and providing the base for the economy.

The social and economic worlds overlap for most women engaged in the ‘people’s economy’. For example, the key agricultural export sectors of oil palm, coffee, and cocoa sectors provide a livelihood for over 160,000, 400,000, and 150,000 households respectively.

Production in these agricultural sectors is largely undertaken by family units operating as small businesses or small micro enterprise in which men dominate the higher value end of production.

Women, an important source of labour, are often marginally involved in the higher value parts of the agriculture sector and tend to rely on growing fresh food to supplement their own incomes earned from the family agriculture engagement.

In recent years, some progress has been made to improve women’s economic engagement. For example, the mama lus frut scheme, enables women to make an independent income by selling loose palm oil fruits from the family operations.

Traditionally, fresh food was the mainstay of women’s economic and social engagement but, as contemporary markets have grown and become more commercialised as agri-businesses for commercial distribution throughout the country, increasing numbers of men are involved in food production and trade.

These changes can potentially further marginalise women’s traditional small-scale income generation from fresh food sold at small markets.

The indigenous stimulant, betel nut, is an important source of income for many women in both rural and urban areas, especially for those who are not formally employed. However, it is also the target of ongoing regulation and control based on public health and hygiene policies.

An important part of the ‘people’s economy’ are the many and diverse market spaces in PNG ranging from roadside selling, small local markets, community markets, and larger public official markets that form the pathways for these transactions and connections to take place.

In urban areas where unemployment is high, women are the dominant vendors in a diverse informal economy that ranges from vendors in the official larger markets, to operating smaller stalls near homes, or street vending.

Urban regulation also means that women are the target of police and municipal authorities who often resort to violence to control urban spaces.

Many women vendors are part of family strategies that combine waged earnings with their trade income, supporting their families when waged earnings run out or are misspent by their husbands. Women are also likely to share their produce or goods with customers or neighbours who may be in need.

Papua New Guinean life, values, and customs shape and entangle social and economic activity.

Historically, the PNG government has recognized the importance of these Papua New Guinean modes of economic engagement.

It introduced an informal economy policy in 2009, recognising the informal economy as a “grassroots expression of private enterprise” and a “full and legitimate partner of the formal economy.” In 2019, an informal economy audit noted its significant value.

PNG also introduced a Small to Medium Enterprises (SME) policy in 2016 with the objectives of growing the number of SMEs, increasing employment, redistributing wealth, and supporting inclusive and sustained economic growth.

Both policies recognise the dynamic character of PNG entrepreneurship and the challenges facing Papua New Guineans, including women’s economic engagement. The policies clearly overlap, and both have been criticised for failing to realise their objectives.

The SME policy has been critiqued as protectionist while not focusing on much needed services such as roads, electricity, communications, and access to funds to foster a vibrant Papua New Guinean owned SME sector.

Similar challenges have been identified in the implementation of the informal economy policy.

Despite these policy efforts, women still face challenges due to the difficult processes for registering small businesses as well as lack of access to grants, finance, and other resources, and overall social and cultural norms.

Michelle Nayahamui Rooney is a Research Fellow at the Development Policy Centre, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University


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