Improving women’s participation in PNG politics

21 June 2013

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Why is supporting women’s attempts to get into formal politics in PNG so important, write ANTHONY SWAN and GRANT WALTON of the Development Policy Centre.

August 6, 2012 felt like a watershed moment for PNG politics; this was the date that Julie Soso Akeke was declared the third woman elected to parliament in that year’s national election, and the first to ever hold a seat in the PNG Highlands region. Her election, along with Delilah Gore and Loujaya Toni was never assured. Indeed, many in PNG feared that with the retirement of Dame Carol Kidu, at the time PNG’s sole female MP, it would be a long time before another female MP stepped into Haus Tambaran (Parliament house). This against-the-odds effort was a small but important victory.

So why is supporting women’s attempts to get into formal politics in PNG is important? And how did Soso come to power, and what does her success means for donor efforts to support female candidates.

Why support women candidates?

Judging from PNG statistics, support for women candidates is long over due. The election of three women in 2012 was, along with the 1977 election, the highest number of women ever elected to parliament since the first general election of 1964. Papua New Guinean women now make up only 2.7 per cent of total MPs. This figure is less than the 3.7 per cent average across the Pacific (excluding New Zealand and Australia) – a region with the lowest rate of women’s participation in formal politics in the world.

Increasing female participation in formal politics has flow on effects that can help raise women’s status. According to the 2012 Women’s Political Participation Report Asia-Pacific [pdf], in New Caledonia and French Polynesia reserved parliamentary seats for women have helped secure resources targeted at improving women’s well-being, and has positively shaped debates about female leadership. While we acknowledge the often controversial nature of the issue of reserved seats for women, the report nonetheless suggests that female parliamentarians are often better placed to promote women’s rights.

In PNG, female politicians have been at the forefront of raising awareness about the challenges facing women. Dame Carol Kidu has been a tireless campaigner for social issues, with a particular focus on women’s rights. It appears that newly elected MP and Governor of the Eastern Highlands, Soso, has continued on with Kidu’s concern about raising the status of women – albeit in her own way (unlike Kidu she disagrees that women should have reserved parliamentary seats). At a recent seminar at The Australian National University, she outlined a number of initiatives that she hopes will improve the status of women in the Eastern Highlands.

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