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Q&A: The life of a woman in PNG politics

Dame Carol Kidu (SMH)
Dame Carol Kidu - "Some PNG male politicians would say to me, 'We don’t mind you being here but we don’t want our own women here'


Edited extracts of questions from a talk by Dame Carol Kidu at the University of Papua New Guinea on 23 April. Dame Carol was an MP for 15 years (1997-2012). The current PNG parliament  (2017-2022) has no women members in its 111 seats.

Henry Murau, Student

As a female member of parliament what was the main challenge for you?

Dame Carol Kidu

As a female, the only female there, you’re kind of isolated. When you are in the NEC, the cabinet, and have a ministry, you are part of that.

But if you are not, you are kind of isolated from some of the things that are going on.

I preferred to be isolated but sometimes it means you are not really clear of the games behind the games. Politics is played on many levels.

I was never involved in the inner circle, even though the people thought I was. I kept myself out of the inner circle and focused on my work.

I didn’t particularly want to be inside the inner circle because you hear things you don’t want to hear. So I just focused on things on my ministry and worked on them.

I am very grateful to the late Sir Michael Somare because he gave me the opportunity to serve as a minister. In Papua New Guinea politics, to become a minister your party should have three members on the floor to be given one ministry.

Six members, you are given give two ministries. Nine members, your party gets three ministries. That’s how it is done. It is not about who is the best person to do the job. It’s about the numbers game of politics.

In 2007, I was part of the Melanesian Alliance Party, not Sir Michael’s party. We had only three members, and so we should only get one ministry.

Sir Moi Avei, a member of Melanesian Alliance Party, was a more senior politician than me, and he became deputy prime minister. He also had a senior ministry, but Michael also gave me a ministry. I can tell you there were many men objecting.

Nahau Rooney
Nahau Rooney

They said, ‘“They don’t have enough numbers, she should not be given a ministry.” But Michael stood firm, saying, “Sorry gentlemen, this is non-negotiable, she will be in my cabinet.”

And, if you think about it, Michael appointed PNG’s first female minister, the late Nahau Rooney. He was, very quietly, supportive of women. And in 2002 and in 2007 it was the same.

I was the only person in the Melanesian Alliance who won. I was a one-person party but he still gave me a ministry even though we didn’t have the numbers. I was very grateful because Michael was very proactive and gave me the opportunity to do the work I did in the ministry.

And I always acknowledge him for that because, if you are not in a ministry, there are not many opportunities to change policies and legislation.


From your experience as a long term female parliamentarian, what would you say is the main blockage for the indigenous female Papua New Guinean women to become a parliamentarian?

Dame Carol Kidu

It’s a huge question and a lot of writing been done about it. Number one, it has nothing to do with the capabilities of women, the indigenous women. They are capable of being very good politicians. It is more to do with the mindset of communities and things like that.

The communities in general don’t see politics as something for women. They don’t see it as suitable place for women. They see politics as something for men.

Traditionally, it was mainly men who made the speeches, did the public distribution at feasts, and organised bride price and things like that. But we all know that, behind the scenes, women had a lot of influence.

We still haven’t got those communities to change their mindset.

But it’s OK for women to be in the public sphere as leaders. It’s the community that votes and I believe in our push to have women into politics.

It’s really important that people like you go back to your communities and try to influence the mindset of the community. You know very well that in your communities many women are great leaders.

It has to begin with a change in the mindset of the people because it’s the people who vote. I really think mindset is a really big problem.

The other big problem is that politics has sadly become money politics in Papua New Guinea. When I stood for parliament in 1997, money politics wasn’t very strong. By the time I ran my last campaign in 2007, I had to fundraise a lot of money to run the campaign. That’s not money for bribery, or giving out money.

We all know there’s a lot of money politics played in the political game in Papua New Guinea. It’s illegal but it happens, so that is very hard for women too.

Most women don’t have that type of financial backup to fund their campaign. Papua New Guinea is a very hard country to campaign in to try to get all around your electorate.

Again I was very lucky, I was in Moresby South. I could drive around my all electorate in one day whereas women who stand in remote rural areas find it very hard to get around to the communities.  And she needs to partner with males to campaign. So the money factor is a very hard factor for women in politics, there’s big money played.

Another factor is that parties don’t like to endorse women. Parties want to endorse winners because that’ll get them into chance of being prime minister. So they often don’t want to endorse women because they feel women are not winners.

There’s legislative reform happening at present and you can lobby for this. Dr Alphonse Gelu, who is very strong in his work with the political party integrity commission is seeking to put through legislation that all parties must at least endorse 20% females.

The political parties should take responsibilities for trying to get women into politics. Women can do a very good job once they are there.

When I was in politics, I wished I had a big research team around me but I didn’t have that. I had to rely on doing a lot of research myself. So if women are elected, other women and men need to help them with knowledge and research.

In national politics, you need to understand policies, laws and what you are there for. As for me, I knew what I wanted to influence before I was elected and the other things I wanted to focus on. I didn’t do them all but I got some done.

So number one: please go out to your communities and convince them it’s OK to vote for women. Convince them not to vote for money. It doesn’t necessarily give you the best person. Convince your people to look at the qualities of the person standing and look at whether they really care about the people. Don’t become part of money politics.


You said you were not able to win on equality of representation for women in the parliament – the reserved seats for women. Is it because the members did not understand the Constitution about equality? Is it because you were a dual national in the parliament and that there was some kind of racism so you could not be convince the members?

Dame Carol Kidu

I am a naturalised citizen; dual citizens cannot stand for parliament. And that was to my advantage in many ways. It wasn’t racism. In fact, some males used to say to me, and I found this disgraceful, “We don’t mind you being here but we don’t want our own women in here.”

And now you think about that, that’s a terrible statement. They didn’t mind me in there, but they wouldn’t want their own women in parliament. I will leave you to think about that. That statement was said to me by several members.

The actual vote [on reserved seats for women] lost in the end because the parliament had fallen apart after the vote of no confidence against the late Sir Michael Somare by Peter O’Neill and there weren’t enough members on the floor of the parliament to pass the organic law.

But even if there had been more members on the floor, it would have been a hard vote to get through because a lot of men were not comfortable with it, particularly because it was 22 seats. The present work being done is for five seats – five regional seats for women.

I don’t see the bill not passing as a failure. There was a huge amount of advocacy done, a huge amount of lobbying. And if you think about it, in 2012 three women actually won because there was enormous; lobbying, advocacy, and awareness-raising. Since then the lobbying and awareness have died away.

In 2017 the three women lost their seats so we ended up with no women in the parliament. That’s a sad outcome and we have to make sure the same doesn’t happen in 2022. I believe some women will win in 2022 by the normal process.

But I hope there would be some reserved seats to at least increase the number of women. I do feel some of the women who stand in 2022 are going to make it. They’ll be excellent politicians.

Question on Zoom

The number of women who contested in 2017 was only 6% of all the candidates. Is it possible that no female MPs has to do with the very low number of female contestants?

Dame Carol Kidu

Actually the number of women has increased. In every election it has increased but is far fewer than men.

I’ve been saying to women if you’re interested, just go for it. It doesn’t matter whether you win or lose, just make a very clear statement that women want to be there.

Get people to help you pay the nomination fee, campaign the best as you can. Don’t worry about money, just make that statement that we want to be there.

I would like to see as many as possible contesting so the numbers go up a lot. It would probably increase the chances of women winning.

Question on Zoom

What would be your advice to young women who may be interested in contesting an election in the future?

Dame Carol Kidu

You have to have determination. Enormous determination. You have to be willing to diplomatically argue your points, not confrontationally. In Papua New Guinea I wouldn’t do confrontational arguments with men because it’s uncomfortable for men and we know that.

But you have to learn how to diplomatically develop your arguments on why you are standing and it’s really important to know what you want to do. Why you going into politics. What are the things that you want to influence.

If you are women, do you want to improve the maternal mortality rate. Today, five women would have died in PNG giving birth. Maternal mortality is really high. Do you want to work on that issue or work on the economic empowerment of women.

I would say we’ve got to work on people issues, not just women issues. Because women’s issues are men’s issues and I think it’s important we don’t isolate the men. We’ve got to work with men.

Kuson Madelyn, Student

What would be your personal views on why the three female parliamentarians elected in 2012 did not come back in the next term of the parliament?

Dame Carol Kidu

Delilah Gore

I really can’t comment on that as I did not study the politics of their electorates. I think Delilah Gore came very close to coming back and only missed out by a very small number of votes.

I think Louzaya and Julie were further down in the actual placings but Delilah was very close. It was very sad she did not get back in. I can’t comment on why. People decided not to vote for them again. It’s very hard to maintain your support base, you’ve got to focus on that as well.

Russel Yangin, Student

How do you think women should behave inside parliament: should they be leaning towards the more masculine and the bigman side of politics or should they be reserved to the roles of the Melanesian women, as a motherly figure?

Dame Carol Kidu

What helped me to win and win and win again is that I was seen by the people as a mum to all. The young fellows and everyone they call me mum. ‘Mama bilong Moresby South.’ It’s part of my personality but I deliberately cultivated that image.

I think it’s very important that women portray an image that people expect of them as women. But that can be very demanding because if they see you as a mother they expect from you what they shouldn’t be expecting from you, like providing rice, providing daily needs and all those things.

Keep kiduOne thing I was disappointed about when the three women won in 2012 is that they very quickly went into ministries. When I won in 1997, even if I had been offered a ministry, I would have said no. My first aim was to consolidate my electorate and I think that it is a very important thing for both men and women, but particularly women.

First consolidate your electorate and worry about ministries when you get back in next time because once you are a minister you have to be in Moresby almost every week. You are hardly ever back in your electorate. As a cabinet member, there’s always meetings and things.

It was a big advantage for me that my electorate was in the capital city so I could attend to my ministerial duties after 2002 as well as getting out into my electorate. In 1997 a woman, a political activist, was running around trying to lobby for a ministry for me. And I kept saying to her, ‘Stop it, you’re wasting your time, I’m not interested.’

I wanted to get my electorate sorted first. When you become a minister it takes you away from your electorate and it’s your electorate who’s going to vote you back or not vote you back. Leave being a minister until you consolidate and really establish yourself in your electorate.

Peggy, Student

How did you stay in parliament for three terms?

Dame Carol Kidu

You have to keep very close to your electorate and people. In Papua New Guinea that special relationship is extremely important and it’s so demanding I wouldn’t want to stand again. I always said three terms and that’s it. I was exhausted at the end of it because I think people expect more from women than from men.

Spend your first term in your electorate getting yourself established. There are other ways you can influence policies. In my first term, when there was a vote of no confidence and the late Sir Mekere Moratau became prime minister, I said I’m not interested in a ministry but did ask to chair a parliamentary committee.

It was a special parliamentary committee on urbanisation and social development. I chaired it and set the terms of reference. Sir Mekere was happy for me to go off and do that without being a minister.

So you don’t have to be a minister. You can work out how you to use the processes of parliament to be seen and heard. I think people don’t do that enough, they just get up in question time. You don’t hear many people putting forward matters of public importance and trying to use the committee system.

I left things I was not popular for to my final term in politics because I knew they would be very contentious. In other words, you got to use the processes of the parliament for your advantage. Being the widow of a highly respected man also gave me an advantage.


A lot of women have contested but not been elected into parliament. How did the successful ones manage to get elected?

Dame Carol Kidu

A lot of really hard work. There were three women after independence at the beginning of our nationhood: Nahau Rooney, Dame Josephine Abaijah and Waliyato Clowes. Many of you wouldn’t know Waliyato Clowes. She was a very young woman and a member of the parliament straight after independence. Then it went back to one woman. And then it went to zero, zero and then two and then one, one, three and now zero.


Did you have a hand or play a part in the recent amendments to the Divorce Act, the 2020 amendments making women liable to pay 50% of all savings and assets after divorce if the women were involved in extra marital affairs?

Dame Carol Kidu

No, I’m not even aware of this legislation. It is discriminatory. I don’t see any point to make polygamy illegal; to make a custom illegal. It wouldn’t work. But what we should do is to have legislation that will protect polygamy from abuse. In traditional polygamy, a man had to look after everyone and the children and I have no problem with that. But when a man dumps his first wife and gets another that is wrong, and we have to look at the abuse of polygamy.


What was the feeling when you first entered the parliament that was dominated by men?

Dame Carol Kidu

Josephine Abaijah

Dame Josephine Abaijah and I first entered parliament in 1997 and we won again in 2002. When we won in 1997 there had been 10 years, two terms of parliament, with zero women.

I think the men were little uncomfortable but very respectful of both of us. Dame Josephine was one of our icons in the early days, a long-term politician.

I think once you win by elective process you are accepted by the men but the disadvantage is that only one or two women can’t form a strong lobby on issues that are important to women, to families, to people of things of common interests.

But I would say that my male colleagues were very supportive of the work I’ve been doing.

With many thanks to Danny Eric (Dan) Agon, a final year political science student at the University of Papua New Guinea, for his great effort in transcribing and editing Dame Carol Kidu’s talk


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