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Women MPs in PNG: Are men a secret weapon?

Delilah Gore (Sohe)  Loujaya Kouza (Lae) and Julie Soso (Eastern Highlands governor)
Happy days. Delilah Gore (Sohe),  Loujaya Kouza (Lae) and Julie Soso (Eastern Highlands) after their election in 2012. All failed to win re-election in 2017

| Academia Nomad

PORT MORESBY – For five days in mid-January, Papua New Guinea’s Registry of Political Parties and Candidates, with the support of donors, ran a mentoring program for aspiring female candidates to contest this year’s national election.

Getting women into parliament is tough in Papua New Guinea.

In the 46 years since independence, there have been only seven women elected to parliament, and only two were re-elected after serving just one term.

In the current parliament of 111 members, there is not one woman.

Conversations around the lack of women’s representation in parliament revolves around financial constraints, election violence, corruption and bribery, and a ‘cultural preference’ for male leadership.

There are lessons to be learnt from the experiences of those women who have been elected, and perhaps the two who were re-elected.

So here we document our conversations with those two former MPs and with a female MP from the Bougainville parliament who won an open seat competing against male candidates.

Before she passed away in 2020, we were able to speak with Nahau Rooney, one of three women elected at the 1977 election, the first after independence.

Nahau Rooney co-founded the People Democratic Movement, which produced former prime ministers Paias Wingti and Mekere Morauta, and as MP for Manus, she held ministerial portfolios for correctional services and justice.

We also heard Dame Carol Kidu speak to students at the University of Papua New Guinea in an event organised by the Political Science Students Association in 2021.

Dame Carol represented the Port Moresby South electorate for three terms from 1997 until she retired in 2012, holding senior ministerial portfolios as well as leading the opposition at one point.

Also in 2021, we interviewed Theolina Roka Matbob, who was the only woman to win an open seat at the 2020 Bougainville election, and now serves as minister for education.

There are three other women MPs in the Bougainville parliament who contested the three seats reserved for women.

From our conversations, it was clear that these successful women lived in their communities and had huge support from men.

Ms Matbob spent the seven years before her election in in the Ioro constituency running adult literacy and counselling programs for people affected by the 10-year civil war in the 1990s.

With her husband, Nathan Matbob, she also took on the fight to hold the Rio Tinto corporation accountable for the environmental destruction caused by its Panguna copper and gold mine.

Ms Matbob told us it was the men who asked her to contest the election, and they led her campaign.

Ms Rooney’s story was similar. Before the 1977 election, she had been organising the Manus bureaucracy by providing the modern systems it required following the creation of provincial governments in 1976.

Leading up to the 1977 election, 13 ward councillors asked her to contest PNG’s first election as an independent nation. The menfolk also led her campaigns.

Dame Carol’s first election was a bit different and she attributes her success in 1997 from ‘sympathy votes’ following the death of her husband, Sir Buri Kidu, the first national Chief Justice who had died in 1994.

Dame Carol said she used the first term to consolidate her political support.

So this other aspect common to these women was the role of men to extend beyond males’ traditional role as leaders and decision-makers in most PNG societies.

During the elections, young men travelled long distances to campaign for their candidates. The violence, rough living and other difficulties can make it especially difficult for women candidates.

It would seem that male support is crucial for female candidates who wish to succeed at the polls.

And there was another interesting fact pointed out to us by a women leader in Port Moresby: each of the three women who won in 1977 had expatriate husbands or partners.

This may not be important now, but back in the 1970s the expatriate community was perceived to have higher status and influence, and was better resourced. And later, in 1997, Dame Carol’s husband (a Papua New Guinean) was held in high regard in his role as chief justice.

During her first term as MP for Port Moresby South, Dame Carol’s colleagues wanted to lobby for her to be given a ministerial portfolio but she refused, not wanting ministerial responsibilities to keep her away from her constituency.

However, she did chair a parliamentary committee that put her in the media spotlight. But she used that first term to consolidate political support in her electorate.

Ministerial portfolios are demanding. For much of the time, they require a minister’s presence in Port Moresby where government departments and other central agencies are located.

For ministers representing constituencies outside Port Moresby, their constant presence in the national capital can be frustrating to their constituencies.

In PNG, voters support MPs based on an expectation that local issues and benefits will command their attention. So even if ministers do a good job at the national level, they can lose support in their constituencies.

In 2012, as in that 1977 election, three female MPs were elected to parliament in 2012, but all lost in 2017.

Two of them were given ministerial portfolios in their first term. But it is not clear to what extent it was those duties that impacted on their failure to be re-elected.

The proposal for reserved seats for women, much discussed over many years in PNG, will probably not be ready for the June 2022 election.

But, even they were to be passed, these proposals would be temporary.

Lessons from successful female politicians will be useful to female candidates long into the future.


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