PNG women election bids to take on ‘big man’ politics

PNG is considered one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a woman, say human rights groups, and that makes running for parliament even more difficult.

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Rarely do women get elected in the culture of the “big man” PNG politics and there is little money available. Most are grassroots campaigns.

Once in office they hope to change the ever present threat of violence and offer a different perspective on addressing economic and social problems.

“It’s a culture (where) men must be the boss, and we must listen to our husbands, and if we don’t listen to our husband, that’s where the violence is coming in,” said Kathy Tom, candidate for Gulf Regional seat.

For decades she has a campaigned for women’s rights and against domestic violence.

PNG is considered one of the most dangerous places in the world for women.

Domestic violence rates high: UN

There are no reliable statistics, but the UN estimates two in every three women experience violence in their lifetime, often with fatal consequences.

Recent brutal sorcery-related murders of women in PNG has drawn UN condemnation, especially after 20-year-old Kepari Leniata was burnt to death on a pile of tyres in the Highlands after being accused of being a witch in 2013.

“We know there is a clear link between gender-based violence and women’s participation, and more so when it comes to political life and taking up leadership roles,” said UNDP’s head of governance Julie Bukikun.

‘I broke the rules’

Among the more than 3,300 candidates there are only 165 women and the UN’s focus is on preparing them for taking their place in parliament.

“It’s supposed to be a men’s house, not a women’s house, so I broke the rules,” said Nahua Rooney, one of three women elected to the first parliament post-independence in 1977, one of the few ever.

“I had nine years of my 10 years as a member as a cabinet minister. My experience is that when it comes to decision making and issues, men will be talking big things, and they’re up on cloud nine, while I’m talking about the basic essentials, the water, the needs.

“It’s to do with money and with women now (gaining) their own economic sustainability, they’re not going to put up with any bullshit any more, that men think he is the only one that control them.” 

The missing jigsaw piece

A new generation of women, in business and the public service, are appalled at being locked out of power but are optimistic they can make a change.

“We fix things domestically, that’s the part of the jigsaw that’s missing from this national agenda on development; the woman’s perspective on how something could be fixed,” said Julienne Leka, a candidate for the Rigo Open electorate.

Women have never held more than three of the 111 seats in any PNG parliament.