Women Candidates Campaign for Equitable Development in Papua New Guinea Elections

July 7, 2012 8:00 pm Published by Leave your thoughts

A national election is currently underway in Papua New Guinea, a small island state in the south west Pacific where women’s political representation is presently only 0.9%. The failure of an Equality and Participation Bill, guaranteeing that 22 parliamentary seats be reserved for women, to be passed into law hasn’t stopped a record number of 135 female candidates labouring to have their voices heard on campaign trails around the country. For many, it is vital for national development that the political influence of women is dramatically increased.

In early June in the capital, Port Moresby, spectators sat on the grass through a day of sun, wind and rain to listen to election candidate, Margaret Loko, passionately defend the rights of women and children living in squatter settlements and those struggling to support themselves at roadside markets.

Loko, in her fifties, is contesting the seat of NCD (National Capital District) Governor with endorsement by the National Alliance Party. This is her fifth Papua New Guinean election since 1982 and she is a confident public speaker. She says she was inspired to return to the campaign trail because “every time I see a woman carrying a child, the child is hungry and the woman is crying.”

“We are a very resource rich country, but we are in poverty. Why?” Loko challenges, “The taxpayers are paying their taxes, so why don’t we have basic services?”

This year’s election, with results due by 27th July, will culminate a ten month power struggle between two governments led by Sir Michael Somare and Peter O’Neill. History was nearly made, too, when the Equality and Participation Bill passed a constitutional vote in November 2011, but then failed to be passed into law.

The issue in Papua New Guinea, which is rated 153rd out of 187 countries for gender equality, is not the number of women contesting elections, but their polling success.

In the nation’s first post-Independence election in 1977, 10 women candidates stood but only three were elected. In the 2007 election, 103 women candidates were nominated, but only one was successful. During 37 years of Independence, only four women have entered parliament.

Papua New Guinean politics is a convergence of two disparate systems. A Westminster parliament, inherited from Britain, with 109 members elected for five year terms, and a strong indigenous society based on the ‘wantok’ system which prescribes that an individual’s allegiance, socially, economically and politically, is to the family or clan.

Hence election campaigns often evolve into male-dominated inter-clan battles for power with guns and bribery. The expectation, by candidates and voters alike, that public spending on feasts and cans of beer will lure voter support, known as ‘pork-barrelling’, has left female candidates on the periphery.

However, in this election year women candidates have attracted attention mainly because recent international publicity and national public debate surrounding the Equality and Participation Bill has stimulated interest in their potential.

“There has been a groundswell of support for women candidates since the Bill for 22 seats was initiated in 2010,” claimed Loko, who was involved in the co-ordination of the bill. “We also went on a roadshow telling people about the leadership qualities of women.”

Loko’s leadership abilities reflect a long career in the private and public sectors and the United Nations, but she also has the advantage of being endorsed by a major political party, giving her access to election resources. Average endorsement by major parties of women candidates is only at 2.27% and many have no choice but to stand as Independent candidates.

Dr Alphonse Gelu, Registrar of the Integrity of Political Parties and Candidates Commission (IPPC) said “there is nothing to encourage parties to support women”. Over the next six months, the IPPC will review the law on political parties and candidates.

“We will be recommending that every party should endorse 30% of candidates as women,” Gelu said. “This needs to be legislated.”

This could in future make a difference to a candidate like 39 year old mother and businesswoman, Cecilia White Wollom, who is contesting her first election in the Moresby North East electorate as an Independent against 47 other candidates.

Wollom admitted it was a struggle to campaign with few resources, but is keen to distance herself from ‘pork barrel politics’. She has campaigned on the strength of her policies to improve standards of living in the area and help the unemployed. But she has done so without a four wheel drive vehicle decorated with posters and loud hailers, and visited her constituents without gifts of free food and alcohol.

“If people keep voting for candidates who are giving freebies, then they will still be living without services,” Wollom declared.

Moresby North East includes 9 Mile Settlement, a rapidly growing informal community of 30,000 people living in sub-standard housing and without clean water.

“I have been around speaking with people for a month,” she continued. “The people want women candidates to represent them because there has been no real development in their areas for 8-9 years.”

But the challenge of bribery and intimidation of female candidates was demonstrated at a mass election rally in 9 Mile Settlement earlier this month.

While Wollom was waiting to address the crowd, a messenger from a rival male candidate’s team conveyed a threat to her. With no security team for support, she decided to leave the stage to ensure her safety. Wollom was adamant she would publicly speak the following week at her own rally.

Former University of Papua New Guinea academic, Dr Orovu Sepoe, has identified that electoral violence, intimidation, security expenses and overwhelming money politics ‘illustrates male control of public and private resources,’ presenting ‘immense challenges and difficulties for women as candidates and voters.’

Lower levels of female education and strong perceptions of a woman’s overriding obligations in the home have also contributed to the female struggle for political voice. In Port Moresby, the female literacy rate is 88.7%, whereas in the Highlands, where the majority of the population lives, the rate drops to 29.5% in Enga Province.

But the problem also lies in voting behaviour and widespread susceptibility to vote-buying and calls for ethnic loyalty, rather than free individual choice at the ballot box.

The government has introduced some initiatives this year to address the situation. A special training programme to equip potential women candidates with skills to manage election campaigns was conducted by the Office for Development of Women, supported by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and Australia’s Centre for Democratic Institutions.

To reduce intimidation of women voters, the Electoral Commission initiated the idea of separate female polling booths.

But maybe the most promising sign is that many people are questioning their choice of leaders because their lives are severely impacted by lack of development.

“We have mostly supported males, but when we vote them into parliament, they never come back to us,” Theresa Aiva, a spectator at Loko’s rally said. “We have no good services in our areas. She [Margaret] is a woman, a grassroots mother and she will fight for us.”

“This current leadership has gone on too long with corruption feeding their stomachs,” declared Joe Oakiva. “Infrastructure, road services and schools; nothing has happened. If a mother looks after us in the family, the mother will look after our nation.”

Increasing women’s political participation in Papua New Guinea is an issue of national development. Wollom claimed the country needed the qualities of women’s leadership, which she believes includes putting equitable development before personal interests.

“The women [leaders] will ensure benefits and services are distributed equally. They will be better managers in every way and less corrupt. So the country would change because the management would change,” she said.

But while voters’ sentiments are clear, widespread reports of vote-buying, bribery and incorrect electoral rolls, which has resulted in thousands of eligible people unable to cast their vote since polling began on 23 June, could jeopardise the possibility of a fair and transparent election outcome.


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This post was written by Catherine Wilson

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