3 Jul 2012

Push for more females in PNG parliament held back by traditional attitudes

8:45 pm on 3 July 2012

With women accounting for only around 4 percent of candidates standing in Papua New Guinea's general election, debate rages on about whether reserved women's seats should be created in parliament.

Johnny Blades reports that despite years of lobbying for the seats and greater representation for women in general, PNG's females are still held back by traditional attitudes on gender.

Although it had some high-profile support, legislation to create 22 reserved seats failed to pass through the last parliament.

At the grassroots level, there is mixed support among men.

Lawrence Igiam is an unemployed father of two who says men are resisting the bill for their own sakes.

"Because of our culture, then women are seen as second class and a threat to the men; because of men's fear of women being in possession of the power, that's why everything is done in favour of the men."

In the last parliament, PNG had a sole woman MP who has since retired.

Lawrence Igiam says the prospects of another female MP emerging from this election are slim.

As you can see, they contest with the men and have only about ten percent chance of becoming a member of parliament. But if they were given the chance, through the reserved seats of 22, I think they should do very well and we will see goods and services delivered to the people of Papua New Guinea. For a start, women are the best managers in the house so when they go into the parliament, if the bill was mandated and they were given the chance to have the 22 seats, I think they would look after the country well.

But other men, like former policeman Bob Wali, say the time isn't right for reserved seats.

Naturally, mothers are mothers. You know that. Well, for creating reserved seats for them, it's perhaps too early, perhaps too early. Why not they contest like other ordinary citizens? (He is asked if women are free to contest like men are:) Why sure yeah, they're free.

Tom, in his mid-20s, also believes that women's rights are currently adequately recognised in that they are legally entitled to contest elections.

To make it fair to everyone of us. It's good for the women: women and men, gender equity. So everyone has their rights of representing their people for the sake of the country, their own people, the community. It's for the betterment of every one of us.

However an advocate for reserved seats, Betha Somare, says female candidates are disadvantaged from the outset because women are judged by higher standards than men in PNG.

She rejects the argument that it's a level playing field.

Say up in certain areas of the Highlands, and it's been documented, women candidates that have stood, their supporters have been threatened. They've been threatened in that if you stand, then your whole house line will suffer. So in order to stop unrest and things like that in their area, they back off.

Betha Somare feels a more careful approach is needed in the campaign for reserved seats.

She says that due to the prevailing cultural hang-ups on gender, pushing too agressively for the seats is counter productive.