In nearly 50 years, PNG has elected just seven female MPs. Money, culture and corruption are all working against the women trying to address the problem
| Guardian Australia | Edited extracts
See end of article for current standings of women candidates
PORT MORESBY - When she first tried for a seat in the Papua New Guinea parliament in 2017, Rufina Peter was a political novice who’d had a gutful.
While many candidates solicit votes with lavish feasts and hollow promises, her shoestring campaign – handing out copies of her CV – struck a chord. She won the highest vote of any woman in the country, albeit not enough.
PNG is one of only three nations in the world without a single woman in parliament. In its nearly 50 years since independence, the country has had just seven female MPs, meaning it has one of the worst records of female representation in parliament in the world.
Peter, a 52-year-old agricultural economist who has served in senior ranks of government and banking, had too often seen MPs squander opportunity and ignore good policy.
One instance, which still rankles, involved months of work on a big agricultural plan, getting all the technical work scoped out, donors locked in, the community primed, “and the minister would not even take time to listen to it”, she says.
“And I thought: why else are you in parliament? We’ve given it to you on a plate.
“Enough is enough. You know, we cannot continue to carry water around on our heads.”
Peter has devoted the past five years to preparing for her run at the 2022 election, one of just 167 women vying with 3,458 men for 118 seats.
They face formidable odds, vastly outgunned by men with money to buy influence and votes.
As a recent analysis by the Pacific Women’s Political Empowerment Research frankly observed of PNG, “the barriers that all women face when campaigning – namely violence, corruption and money politics – are still almost insurmountable”.
The prospect of any women getting into the next parliament remains touch and go in the delayed, deadly shambles of the 2022 election – though Peter is one of two or three with a chance.
Staggered polling began across PNG in July, but delays as well as failures in the electoral roll, which has not been updated in a decade, has seen up to a million people disenfranchised.
On top of this, there have been allegations of voter fraud, and missing ballots have fuelled distress, rumours and violence, with the United Nations warning of dozens killed and thousands displaced. Writs were due on Friday but have now been extended to 12 August to avoid a failed election.
As tensions escalate around the disrupted and disputed counting, Peter is one of only a handful of women still in contention, running in second place against a powerful incumbent.
Meanwhile, counting started late and is very slow in the Madang Rai Coast seat where Kessy Sawang, another highly fancied female contender, is leading.
Sawang, like Peter, quit the security of high public office in Port Moresby to contest her home seat in 2017.
A former treasury official and deputy commissioner of the PNG customs service, she has a better understanding than most of the wealth being shipped out of her country. Her campaign is motivated, she says, by anger and sadness.
The Chinese-owned $2.1bn Ramu Nickel mine’s processing plant sits on the Madang Rai Coast right next to the village where Sawang grew up, and yet her community has no electricity, no medicines and only seasonal road access.
The provincial capital is a two-hour dinghy ride away with kind conditions and a big outboard. But “the sea is our graveyard”, Sawang says.
“We have lost many family members to sea piracy, to bad weather.” Her own boat was captured two years back.
Like Peter, she raises water carrying – her daily chore growing up – as a reality and metaphor for female constraint. Sawang has enlisted volunteer engineers to design village water projects – the plans are ready.
“We tell the women, when you give birth to a girl, you are giving her a lifetime job of carrying water. She is faced with it until she is old and she dies. We want to break that slavery … and I think that has resonated well.”
Another pledge is to provide menstrual pads to schoolgirls. If the government can provide free condoms, why not these?
Water also preoccupies Matilda Koma, 55, running for the fifth time, although her concern is with water quality. She trained as an analytical chemist, and then in process engineering.
Then in 2000 an Australian gold mining company accidentally dropped one tonne of cyanide from a helicopter into jungle near the headwaters serving her community.
And so began her journey into environmental monitoring, social justice activism and politics.
“Because of that I went out and started to campaign,” she says. “Those who lived by the rivers deserted their homes,” she says. “No one told them, but they saw fish floating down the river.”
This trio – Peter, Sawang, Koma – reflects the high calibre of women standing in 2022, many far better qualified for leadership than the men they hope to unseat, observes their mentor, Dame Carol Kidu.
Australian-born Kidu, 74, is one of the seven women who has served in the PNG parliament, and she’s been ploughing hope and energy into ensuring this election there will be – at least – an eighth.
For many years, much of the bandwidth supporting women’s political representation in PNG has been preoccupied with educating and training the candidates. But the candidates are not the major problem, she argues.
Kidu’s focus has been on community education, challenging perceptions of women’s capacity and claim for leadership, which in PNG often becomes entangled in references to culture and tradition.
After corruption, culture is the obstacle most preoccupying the half a dozen women candidates interviewed in depth by the Guardian.
When they put up their hands to enter PNG’s male-dominated power systems, women confront resistance, hostility and sometimes violence.
“Women shy away from running for elections because of this mindset that it is for men only,” says Sawang. But heading into this election, she’s seen up close how a little education can seed powerful shifts.
Across 2021 Kidu, well known across PNG after serving three terms in parliament, got on the road to conduct more than 40 ‘Vote Women for Change’ community awareness workshops in eight electorates where women who polled well in 2017 were standing again.
Addressing grassroots audiences, Kidu used storytelling to explain how government works. She enlisted the analogy of the Bird of Paradise, “our emblem, and how it has two wings. And we have only one wing – the men– and we can’t fly.”
On voting day in Kessy Sawang’s village, dozens of her supporters – male and female – wore the ‘Votim Meri’ (Vote Women) T-shirts given out at the workshops in Madang.
The discussions there were a game-changer in her community, she says. “They really helped to break down the mindset of people toward women.”
“The people here, for 47 years [since independence] have had the same shit. They don’t want to believe anyone,” says Sawang.
Through educating rather than traditional campaigning, “I empower them with the knowledge, so people feel confident and have the words to speak. They can question the campaign messages – we explain their rights under the constitution.”
As counting drags on, those hopes in 2022 turn on close scrutiny and public pressure forcing some integrity on the process. If not, the hard-earned votes of candidates risk being corruptly stolen, or lost in the maelstrom.
When voting finished in Central Province over a week ago, the word coming to Carol Kidu from trusted number-crunchers was that Rufina Peter was in strong contention.
But for days the ballot boxes were stranded in the Goilala district, Peter’s home turf and a stronghold for her vote.
The electoral commission told her they would be transported for counting aboard a helicopter owned by her opponent, the governor, Robert Agarobe.
Peter and Kidu protested publicly to the commission that this represented a conflict of interest and was not appropriate. The boxes were reportedly moved by PNG Defence.
“To be honest,” says Kidu, “I am very concerned about the future of PNG.”
HOW WOMEN ARE FARING
| Count Update, Tuesday Morning
Kessy Sawang is leading in Madang Rai Coast with about half the votes counted.
Rufina Peter is running a good second in the Central Province Seat but needs to bridge a wide gap to win.
Delilah Gore in Sohe Open is 2nd on preferences counted so far but faces a hard job to overtake a clear leader.
Jean Eparo Parkop in Northern Provincial is running 2nd on preferences to Gary Juffa who has a comfortable lead.
Vikki Mossine in Rigo Open (5th) is well adrift of the leader.
Diane Unagi Koiam in Port Moresby North East Open (7th) is no threat to the leaders.
Matilda Koma in Goilala is in 7th as first preference votes are being counted and unlikely to catch the leader.
Tania Bale is running 16th in Port Moresby North East Open.
Dulciana Somare-Brash is running in Angoram Open where, according to the PNGEC, counting has not started.