Letter from Papua New Guinea #4

“See those girls there,” a female pastor says from the back-seat of the vehicle we’re in, pointing to a group of girls who looked between 11-15 years of age; they are likely part of a prostitutes ring encouraged by older girls.

Prostitution is increasingly common in Papua New Guinea, especially for girls needing income for themselves and their families in order to get an education.  The cost of going to college is between $US3,000 and $US6,500 per year.  And for many people who struggle on the poverty line for most of their lives, the dream of an education for themselves or their family is just that.

“I know parents who have given up their entire retirement fund to give their daughter an education,” an educator tells me.  And yet there are many other families with little income and living in deep poverty who struggle to send their daughter to school.  Help may come in the form of a rich uncle who may pay for his niece’s education and then want payback from her and her family in return.  He may have sex with the girl, claim her as his own and she may get pregnant and be unable to continue her studies as a result.

Such was a case told to me while I was visiting an educational institution. “That’s why we need scholarships for girls and young women, including those who are married as they still have their dreams and aspirations,” says the educator.

Girls now expect to be raped because it’s so commonplace here.  Women say ‘we’ve all been and we all will be raped’.  It’s also why girls wear shorts under their dresses – apparently so they can make a quick get-away if needed. “I would estimate, at this college, almost 90% of girls have been interfered with,” said one educational professional, “but they would never say because it’s considered shame related.” Incest too is not talked about, even though it is said to be on the increase.

Girls whose mothers re-marry are seen to be at greater risk due to exposure to their step-fathers.  In this situation, girls don’t feel they can talk and their mothers’ don’t feel they can act as their husbands will banish them from the home and they will have nowhere to live.

Girls are often forced to get married to provide security for their family and my sister friend, Lilly, says a man may grab a young woman off the road.  “Two weeks ago I heard of a girl who was standing by the road and a man came up in his car and said “You are my wife, I’ve been looking for you, where have you been?” It was only because another man who knew the girl was standing by and stopped the man taking the girl that she was saved from this fate.”

I’d hope that at the Global Fund for Women we can support the National Council of Women in a campaign to support girls to be safe and secure, especially through the new global Girls not Brides campaign.

Another story told to me was of a family that owed a man some money and so he said he’d take their twin daughter instead.  The twin apparently knew her rights but she didn’t know how she could enforce them and so she committed suicide.

JanetSape-DameCarol Kidu-Julie SosoWhen the legendary Dame Carol Kidu, until recently the only woman in a Papua New Guinean Parliament, tried to introduce a law into Parliament banning marital rape, the male politicians all cried ‘interference in the bedroom!!!” and there was uproar in Parliament resulting in the bill being howled down in protest.  Wily Dame Kidu got it through in the end, anyway.

She bided her time, until the last session of Parliament in 2002 and bundled it in with a series of amendments to a Child Sex Exploitation and Rape Bill.  And so the law banning marital rape finally did pass and it was months later before all her all male Parliamentary colleagues found out that they’d been ‘asleep at the wheel’ and the legislation had passed when only a few members were in Parliament, impatient to leave and go on holidays.  Such is the balance of diplomacy, strategic planning and foxy action that defines a stellar politician.

Dame Carol is also an extraordinary humanitarian and women’s human rights defender who is wise and nuanced in her recognition and articulation of the issues facing women and girls in Papua New Guinea.

“There’s a lot of lateral violence against women and girls.  From a young age, girls are diminished by being told “don’t speak, you’re only a girl,” and so when we’re talking about violence against women and girls then we have to tackle the psychological violence so that girls can grow up feeling empowered.  We also need to pay more attention to emotional and social wellbeing and provide anger management training for men.  I think that men and women are under a lot of stress, living between two worlds – tribal law and culture, and contemporary law and culture.”

Dame Carol’s retirement from Parliament is sorely missed, especially at a time when there’s a push to endorse a bill for Temporary Special Measures that would give women 22 guaranteed seats in Parliament.   There’s also a desire by many women to see connections bridged between women parliamentarians and women’s rights organizations in order to build women’s political agenda. There’s a recognition that such an agenda really needs a critical mass of women in Parliament to champion and advance it.  And herein lies the rub.

Prominent PNG Greens leader, and staunch environmental activist, Dorothy Tekwie told a post election review panel:

“As a female, I thought that I was smart and I could do it.  It just hit me so hard because first of all, I didn’t see how cruel, how terrible, the system was against people who want to come in and do the right thing.  The system is not supporting principle-based leadership, people who are fighting corruption, people who are trying to do the right thing by the people.”

“Politics in Papua New Guinea is totally, totally something for big men and I mean men with money (who) are ruthless, and all the sponsors of political parties support big man politics in Papua New Guinea.  They don’t support little me whose is trying to do the right thing – or little him who’s trying to do the right thing by our people,” she said. “I can’t raise the kind of money that others can (millions) through going to industry and corporate donors.  I can’t accept money from people who are intent on environmental destruction…I was personally offered K5 million not to stand so that I would not support the bill on 22 reserved seats for women.”

Julie Soso, Governor of Eastern Highlands, is one of three women who did manage to get a seat in National Parliament.  She got in on her fourth time of campaigning for a seat because lots of ‘small people’, the 99 percenters, voted for her because they knew her and trusted her.

There are 111 seats in Parliament and 56 votes are needed to pass the legislation to guarantee women 22 seats in Parliament.  In this country, if you’re standing for election the idea of ‘give and take’ is “give us the money to vote for you and then take the power.”  We are told that, if you want me to vote for you then you have to pay me to do so. “I’ve been asked to provide someone with a Toyota Landcruiser,” said one woman, “and another man asked me to give him a gun in return for voting for me.”

“With council elections you will need at least 30,000 kina to run whereas for National Parliament you really need at least one million kina to run.  If we get the support of Parliament for those 22 seats for women then we will mobilize a strong women’s movement in this country and be able to put up candidates who have the same heart, drive and ethics as Dame Carol Kidu.

Dame Carol herself estimates it will take three generations without the Temporary Special Provisions to get women the representation and critical mass they need in Parliament.  Without denying the important victory of three women in Parliament, they still only represent 1.1% of the total number in Parliament.

“That’s why women need a strong National Council of Women base”, says my new friend, Mary. “One that unites women across the country and men in support of women’s empowerment.  A council with its own operating base, linked to a series of women’s resource and incubation centers in rural PNG.  Places where women can go to organize, get skilled up and fired up.  When we Meri (women) come together under the banner of UNITY we will be unstoppable.  We’ll have the economic freedom, the social networks and the political power to make this country work for all of us and not just for the men.”

She beams at me, a kind of Mother Earth, Mama Hip figure in her billowing dress, “Amen to that!!”


Jane Sloane – Papua New Guinea


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