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Governor General election: Will parliament give meaning to PNG gender equality goals

Winnie Kiap CBE, PNG’s ambassador to the United Kingdom from 2011-22, and nominee for Governor-General


PORT MORESBY - The position of Governor General in Papua New Guinea becomes vacant in February as Grand Chief Bob Dadae’s six-year tenure comes to an end.

In the history books, Sir Bob will be remembered as the only PNG Governor-General who served under the reign of both Queen Elizabeth ꓲꓲ and King Charles ꓲꓲꓲ.

And on Thursday his successor will be elected by the PNG parliament.

There has been much discussion in PNG recently about which women would qualify to be the first to hold this high office. Winnie Kiap is a leading contender.

Women have generally not been well-represented in the nation’s highest offices.

From 1961 to 1964, as PNG was edging slowly towards self-government and independence, a largely expatriate and male dominated Legislative Council, had Papua New Guinean Alice Wedega and Australian Roma Isabelle Bates as its first women nominated as members.

PNG's independence in 1975 coincided with the globalisation of second-wave feminism.

But this failed to assist most of the new nation’s female citizens who sought to be included in its legislature.

PNG's has provided an external push to.

The PNG government has largely depended on its development partners and membership of the United Nations to press the women's agenda and increase women's participation in nation-building.

This has proven to be a difficult and fundamentally unsuccessful task, a status which continues to this day.

There are many factors, cultural, political and systemic, that have hampered the electoral appeal of women, one of which has been the failure to develop an autonomous women's movement in the country.

Thus PNG women are largely absent from positions of great influence in political and administrative governance.

In the 48 years since independence, only nine women have been elected to parliament.

Other decision-making structures in customary, religious and private spheres are also male dominated.

Traditional practices like the persistence of bride price and polygamy have helped maintain structural discrimination and worsened the issue.

In the early post-independence days, the Pangu Pati of Sir Michael Somare attempted to include women in nation-building without ever gaining the support required from a majority of the male leaders.

Josephine Abaijah was the first woman to be elected to parliament in 1972 and again in 1977 and 1997.

She was the leader of the Papua Besena movement and, with an overseas education, was much more eloquent than most of the male politicians in those early days.

In the 1977 election Nahau Rooney and Waliyato Clowes were elected.

Rooney, who had also been the first female Students Representative Council president at the University of Papua New Guinea, was re-elected in 1982.

Clowes, represented Middle Fly and formed her own political party, Papua Alliances, once said: “A lot of men think we are rubbish and take no notice of us.”

Dame Carol Kidu, the longest serving female MP, had three consecutive terms in parliament from 1997, 2002 and 2007, before deciding not to stand in 2012.

She spent a number of years as a minister and, in 2011, served as opposition leader.

In the 2012 national general election, Loujaya Kousa (Lae Open), Delilah Gore (Sohe Open) and Julie Soso (Eastern Highlands Provincial) were elected, only to be defeated after just one term.

No woman was elected to the tenth parliament, but the eleventh parliament in 2022 saw Kessy Sawang (Rai Coast Open) and Rufina Peter (Central Provincial) elected.

If we carefully observe these nine women, it is evident that they sensibly handled their leadership roles, formed political parties, became ministers, addressed issues and were on a par with or surpassed male MPs.

Abaijah was elected three times in three separate electorates (Central, National Capital District and Milne Bay) without buying votes or rigging elections. Her record is a feat that no male politician is ever likely to beat.

Kessy Sawang’s maiden speech in parliament last year had men envying her eloquence, her manner of presentation and her dignity as a woman and leader representing her people.

Enny Moaitz was elected premier of Morobe Province from 1987-88, becoming PNG’s first and only woman premier under the former system of decentralised provincial government.

She was also a member of the Tutumang (provincial assembly) from 1980-91.

There are many great women in PNG: articulate, adept, professional and with leadership acumen.

But they have been denied the opportunity to break the glass ceiling and so reach the echelons of political power because all relevant forums are dominated by men.

In fact, all decisions are made through the male lens.

Women’s ability to bring great benefits to PNG politics and other sectors of life are not on men’s radar.

The overarching concept meant to steer PNG’s future progress, Vision 2050, recognises the significance of the country’s National Goals and Directive Principles.

It also notes that PNG utilises less than half of the intellectual and creative potential of its people.

Vision 2050 strongly recommends that intervention programs to achieve gender equality and women’s empowerment must be given priority and be supported by adequate resources.

Elections and parliament are the cornerstones of democratic systems, but the strength of democracy relies on a broader ecosystem.

This includes involving the three arms of government, the fourth estate (the press), women as well as minority groups in the business of running the nation.

That the Equality and Participation Bill (also known as the ‘Women’s Bill’) did not get the required support in 2011 has blighted the nation since.

Since then all efforts to bring a ‘Women’s Bill’ into law have been avoided, shelved or ignored.

Consecutive governments have used it as a political gimmick on the eve of general elections to garner women’s support and then betrayed them once elected.

On the flip side, hordes of people now understood the benefits of having women breaking the glass ceiling and occupying higher positions in government and the private sector.

Dame Carol Kidu has stated that socio-economic issues gain priority when more women are involved in making laws.

As we await Thursday’s election, it is worth reflecting that two women were previously nominated for the Governor General’s post but did not secure the required votes in parliament: in 2005 the late Nahau Rooney and in 2011 Winnie Kiap, the recent and respected High Commissioner to the United Kingdom.

This is an opportunity for a new dawn for PNG.

It is an opportunity for the Pangu Pati with its coalition partners to refrain from political gimmickery and to genuinely include women in high office by electing the first woman Governor General.

Forty-eight years is long enough to wait.

Having that said, let us sit back and watch the 98.3% of the eleventh parliament who are men and see how they vote in this important election.

The outcome will give an insight into the male parliamentarians’ understanding of the benefits of gender equality and women’s empowerment.

It will also signal to our women and girls about how optimistic and confident they can be that Vision 2050 and the national goals are serious expressions of intent about equal participation in nation-building in PNG.

This article offers the writer’s personal opinions and does not represent the opinion of any institution with which he is associated


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Kindin Ongugo

My single criteria for the GG post is someone who is not a national politician. This category includes current MPs, ex-MPs and candidates for past national elections.

Maybe we should also reduce the term of office to one 3-year term.

There are so many capable Papua New Guineans who have done the hard yards for PNG and should be recognised more than the knighthoods.

One such person is Professor Sir Isi Kevau.

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