New Guinea, 1965: Machines, men & landing places
Sonnet to morality (for Lindsay F Bond)

No shortcuts: How women can be elected in PNG

A un candidate training
United Nations women candidates workshop, Port Moresby, 2012. If training does not pragmatically address the socio-cultural barriers facing women, it is likely to be a complete waste of time

| Academia Nomad

Disclaimer: If your goal is advocacy for women’s rights, please don’t read this article. It will offend you. If you get offended easily, don’t read. But if your goal is ‘winning’ an election as a women in Papua New Guinea read on - MK

PORT MORESBY - There is the idealistic, modern, Western way of doing things. And then there is the Papua New Guinean Way, the Melanesian Way.

In electoral terms, one of these is clearly much more effective than the other.

For those of us who live our lives between both cultures, we learn to act appropriately depending on where we are at the time and what we want to achieve.

If we are women, and want to achieve elected office at national level - where of 111 parliamentarians, none is a woman - then we will need to address some very basic issues about our culture.

I know women who are highly educated, indeed some of them my colleagues and my sisters.

They are the classic modern women. In Port Moresby or Australia, they live the modern women they are.

But when they go back to their villages, they take their place as delegated by hundreds of years of customary conventions.

These conventions vary throughout Melanesia but in general you can take it that men are the head and brothers own the land.

And that they consult their brothers, fathers and elders before making decisions that affect the village.

This is where I’m going with this article: in PNG, more than 80% of the voters are rural-based.

They are based where life is governed more by culture than it is by formal law.

Both those who are educated in the Western curriculum and who remain uneducated have one vote each.

Some 80% of our people live in rural areas. People in rural areas dominate PNG elections.

These are voters who have no frame of reference for a range of concepts, perhaps concepts like ‘equality’ or ‘proportionality’ or even ‘democracy’.

Even those people who are educated in the Western, modern, idealistic ways are still very much internally regulated by their cultural upbringing.

Most everyone in PNG has a village they belong to: whether raised there by parents who grew up in it or who, even though urbanised, still feel strong ties to it.

So to win elections in PNG, one has to think, act, and do what the voters tell you.

And this requires a focus on the rural village.

This means female voters have to go back to their villages and communities long before elections, reinforce the relationship and obtain consent from the tribal elders.

Women need the support of men more than women. Women in rural villages do what their husbands tell them. This is the reality.

A pngelection
It's in rural villages where most elections are won or lost, and even in urban areas the influence of traditional culture is powerful

If women in rural areas made their own decisions - or if their decisions were informed by idealistic, modern, Western concepts - we wouldn’t need this conversation.

Women in PNG don’t vote in female MPs.

That is the strongest truth of the culture women candidates will come up against.

Even if women are free to make their own decisions, they will choose men over women. They actually do that.

In an earlier article, Research reveals insights into women candidates, I wrote of conversations with some current Bougainvillean and former PNG female candidates.

When these women were asked about their experiences, they attributed their success to the leadership and influence of men during the campaign phase.

What you might call toxic masculinity is sometimes an asset in elections if women can learn to use it to their advantage.

There is a requirement to study the prevailing cultural imperatives, align your strategies with them, and campaign accordingly.

Don’t ever raise the equality argument. You will not find sympathisers for equality in rural areas, or even in cities for that matter.

But you can take heart, for very many of us want you to win.

I would also urge you to listen carefully to how Papua New Guineans define leadership.

Many will tell you they trust the person who has lived with them in their communities.

They will trust people with the hanmak, who has implemented small projects to improve the community.

Especially during dry seasons or disasters, go out of your way and buy supplies for your village.

Assist in any way you can. It doesn’t have to be a huge contribution. But it will make you ‘visible’. It will keep you engaged.

You should understand that policies and plans do not matter in rural electorates.

To these people, talk is far less important than action. Doing matters much more than saying.

Winning an election is a long, hard road.

You need to know your people. Know your place. Be one with your people and your (village) place. You need their trust. Only then you are in a position to credibly ask for their votes.

A women candidates
Women candidates who have announced they will run for Port Moresby electorates in 2022 (top to bottom, left to right): Tania Bale (Port Moresby North-East, Anna Bais (Port Moresby North West, Michelle Hau'ofa (Port Moresby South), Sylvia Pascoe (National Capital District Regional)

There is no question that we need more women in parliament.

But to win, we need to follow the cultural imperatives that underpin our Melanesian society

If your goal is advocacy, then you don’t have to follow this advice.

After all, you are an independent individual with equality guaranteed by the Constitution.

You don’t need anyone’s permission to do stuff. Not men’s permission. Not your clan’s permission.

But if your goal is winning an election, you must abide by the norms and practices voters have agreed or, more likely, been acculturated to.

This is a socio-cultural venture where you are at the mercy of voters’ decisions. They decide whether you win or lose fate.

The strength of your advocacy is not a factor; the articulation of your cultural understanding is.

When you win, and have the national platform, you then can advocate for change.

It won’t be drastic change because you don’t want to risk losing next time, but gradual, incremental change.

It will be a long journey before we reach that idealistic, modern, Western form of democracy and equality - especially in popular elections where all can choose and all can vote.

So for now, women will have to take the long route.

Some people will ask what the role is here for corruption, foul play, intimidation or violence - offences committed mostly by men.

The truth is that until we have demonstrably free and fair elections, you need men’s support to help you get past these problems.

And yes, at times, they may even commit these offences for you. A bitter and even frustrating truth.

Urban seats will in all likelihood be slightly different from rural seats.

However the role of men in the prospects of success for female candidates is still very important. Even in urban PNG, culture prevails.

Now this has been my personal take on things but, where I come from, this is pretty much the truth.

Michael Kabuni - "If your goal is winning an election, you must abide by the norms and practices to which voters have been acculturated"

Further reading….

Research reveals insights into women candidates by Michael Kabuni

Ipatas leads charge to get women into parliament by Michael Kabuni

Election ’22: Can their political legacy get women into parliament? by Theresa Meki

The life of a woman in PNG politics by Dame Carol Kidu

Women's political participation in Papua New Guinea by Geejay Milli (free downloadable PDF)

Improving women’s participation in PNG politics by Anthony Swan & Grant Walton


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Lindsay F Bond

Change is the word of the era.
Charge is some starter's hope.
Aching for change is initiator for much of saying, yet is short of doing.
Achieving change is inhibited by talk muddying pools by puddling.
Australian nation has long tok tok, but lik lik planning and minuscule momentum.

That is of mechanical matters, and next there is fraught: the matter of electing women to parliaments.

Bernard Corden

I'll give you a brand new Maserati my friend, if it makes you feel all right:

Kindin Ongugo

This is democracy.
You see in every democracy.
Money can beat the thunder.
Money can buy health.
Money can buy life.
Money can buy all the goods
Money can do the dirty job for you
Money can buy lots of votes.
Money can deliver election victories to women candidates.

Philip Fitzpatrick

I don't think the idea that women lacked power in traditional Melanesian societies is as cut and dried as the commentators on this article seem to think.

In my experience there were lots of powerful women in traditional societies. They just wielded that power in a different way than the men.

In both the highlands and on the Great Papua Plateau I came across some fiery women who were highly respected and even feared by some men.

Not because of puripuri and things like that but through force of character.

On a number of occasions I recall chatting up the village women when I wanted the men to reconsider their stance on something and the good ladies, after due diligence, always delivered.

I'm inclined to think that they lost their power somewhere in the transition from the traditional to the modern.

The current situation, especially in the rural areas, is now out of balance, both with traditional concepts and progressive attitudes and is a modern phenomenon.

Philip Kai Morre

In the patriotic structure of our society, male dominance seems to control and make decisions for us to follow.

It will take many years to recognise women as equal partners in politics and before many women can be elected to parliament.

When our mentality changes and when we view women as equal partners in politics things will change.

Regarding women as inferior and second class is in the sub-conscious of Melanesian people including women folk. Women cannot even improve their self esteem and feel superior and be equal with men.

If women want to stand for election to win, they need to mobilise women in the rural areas and also talk to men who will support them.

If women compose half the population, they need to mobilise and support women candidates.

Lindsay F Bond

In wakes of vessels in motion on the seas, is froth. Ahh, says a reader, this comment is against Michael Kabuni.

But no, dear reader, Michael Kabuni is on the right course and points to the reality (I call it froth), that is "the norms and practices to which voters have been acculturated".

Those who steer away from careful thinking of the options in voting, those who flow with the tide but not steering to a best future, they are as if of froth, the bubbling slow-to-change delayers, the following froth.

Please note, this is a comment about overall effects, not only of this or that voter or political candidate.

Be of good courage, dear reader, the independence and freedom of the Independent State of Papua New Guinea is at the point of your vote. For PNG.

Stephen Charteris

What a brilliant exposé of the realities of politics in a rural PNG setting.

A lot of would-be reformers, I particularly refer to those involved in capacity building, need to read and understand this article.

Michael, I particularly love your reference to modern women flipping between the way they act in a Western cultural setting and that of the village. Have observed it many times.

In my experience the implications don't stop with intending female political candidates.

These cultural imperatives apply to everything and everyone. All societal obligations, transactions and decisions.

So apply this men and women in the public sector. The level of dysfunctionality should come as no surprise to anyone.

The hierarchy of structures, gender and status rule supreme. In my view, very few 'outsiders' ever cotton on to the nuances surrounding this. They misread people's intentions over and over again.

Thank you for an honest appraisal of the 'elephant in the room' that so few international operators understand.

Barbara Short

I'm hoping Dulcie Somare Brash will be elected to the seat of Angoram in the coming election.

She has been back in the electorate and I think today she is planting cocoa trees, following in her father's example.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Michael, I think you've made a very strong case for the establishment of special seats for women.

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