When she first tried for a seat in the Papua New Guinea parliament in 2017, Rufina Peter was a political novice who’d had a gutful.
While many candidates solicit votes with lavish feasts and hollow promises, her shoestring campaign – handing out copies of her CV – struck a chord. She won the highest vote of any woman in the country, albeit not enough. PNG became one of only four nations in the world without a single woman in parliament. In its nearly 50 years since independence, the country has had just seven female MPs, meaning it has the worst record of female representation in parliament in the world.
Peter, a 52-year-old agricultural economist who has served in senior ranks of government and banking, had too often seen MPs squander opportunity and ignore good policy. One instance, which still rankles, involved months of work on a big agricultural plan, getting all the technical work scoped out, donors locked in, the community primed, “and the minister would not even take time to listen to it”, she says. “And I thought: why else are you in parliament? We’ve given it to you on a plate.
“Enough is enough. You know, we cannot continue to carry water around on our heads.”
Peter has devoted the past five years to preparing for her run at the 2022 election, one of just 167 women vying with 3,458 men for 118 seats.
They face formidable odds, vastly outgunned by men with money to buy influence and votes. As a recent analysis by the Pacific Women’s Political Empowerment Research frankly observed of PNG, “the barriers that all women face when campaigning – namely violence, corruption and money politics – are still almost insurmountable”.
The prospect of any women getting into the next parliament remains touch and go in the delayed, deadly shambles of the 2022 election – though Peter is one of two or three with a chance. Staggered polling began across PNG in July, but delays as well as failures in the electoral roll, which has not been updated in a decade, has seen up to a million people disenfranchised. On top of this, there have been allegations of voter fraud, and missing ballots have fuelled distress, rumours and violence, with the United Nations warning of dozens killed and thousands displaced. Writs were due on Friday but have now been extended to 12 August to avoid a failed election.
‘We want to break that slavery’
As tensions escalate around the disrupted and disputed counting, Peter is one of only a handful of women still in contention, running in second place against a powerful incumbent.
Meanwhile, counting started late and is very slow in the Madang Rai Coast seat where Kessy Sawang, another highly fancied female contender, is leading.
Sawang, like Peter, quit the security of high public office in Port Moresby to contest her home seat in 2017. A former treasury official and deputy commissioner of the PNG customs service, she has a better understanding than most of the wealth being shipped out of her country. Her campaign is motivated, she says, by anger and sadness.
The Chinese-owned $2.1bn Ramu Nickel mine’s processing plant sits on the Madang Rai Coast right next to the village where Sawang grew up, and yet her community has no electricity, no medicines and only seasonal road access. The provincial capital is a two-hour dinghy ride away with kind conditions and a big outboard. But “the sea is our graveyard”, Sawang says. “We have lost many family members to sea piracy, to bad weather.” Her own boat was captured two years back.
Like Peter, she raises water carrying – her daily chore growing up – as a reality and metaphor for female constraint. Sawang has enlisted volunteer engineers to design village water projects – the plans are ready.
“We tell the women, when you give birth to a girl, you are giving her a lifetime job of carrying water. She is faced with it until she is old and she dies. We want to break that slavery … and I think that has resonated well.”
Another pledge is to provide menstrual pads to schoolgirls. If the government can provide free condoms, why not these?
Water also preoccupies Matilda Koma, 55, running for the fifth time, although her concern is with water quality. She trained as an analytical chemist, and then in process engineering. Then in 2000 an Australian gold mining company accidentally dropped one tonne of cyanide from a helicopter into jungle near the headwaters serving her community. And so began her journey into environmental monitoring, social justice activism and politics.
“Because of that I went out and started to campaign,” she says. “Those who lived by the rivers deserted their homes,” she says. “No one told them, but they saw fish floating down the river.”
This trio – Peter, Sawang, Koma – reflects the high calibre of women standing in 2022, many far better qualified for leadership than the men they hope to unseat, observes their mentor, Dame Carol Kidu.
Australian-born Kidu, 74, is one of the seven women who has served in the PNG parliament, and she’s been ploughing hope and energy into ensuring this election there will be – at least – an eighth.
For many years, much of the bandwidth supporting women’s political representation in PNG has been preoccupied with educating and training the candidates. But the candidates are not the major problem, she argues.
Kidu’s focus has been on community education, challenging perceptions of women’s capacity and claim for leadership, which in PNG often becomes entangled in references to culture and tradition. After corruption, culture is the obstacle most preoccupying the half a dozen women candidates interviewed in depth by the Guardian.
When they put up their hands to enter PNG’s male-dominated power systems, women confront resistance, hostility and sometimes violence. “Women shy away from running for elections because of this mindset that it is for men only,” says Sawang. But heading into this election, she’s seen up close how a little education can seed powerful shifts.
Across 2021 Kidu, well known across PNG after serving three terms in parliament, got on the road to conduct more than 40 “Vote Women for Change” community awareness workshops in eight electorates where women who polled well in 2017 were standing again.
Part of a women in leadership program co-funded by the Australian National University and the Australian government, the workshops pick up one of the key recommendations from close analysis of the 2017 experience: to educate voters in basic civics and voting processes, and begin changing community attitudes towards women’s political leadership.
Addressing grassroots audiences, Kidu used storytelling to explain how government works. She enlisted the analogy of the Bird of Paradise, “our emblem, and how it has two wings. And we have only one wing – the men– and we can’t fly.” She showed charts from Rwanda – “a Black country” – showing health and education indexes going up and corruption going down since women there gained political power.
“I try to separate in their minds that women candidates are not challenging the hausman [men’s house] concept,” says Kidu, referring to traditional village authority systems. “We talk about how that concept was transferred to the house of parliament – which has nothing to do with custom.”
Candidates like Peter continue the conversation in their campaigns. “Our culture is important, and when we go home of course we conform to that. But when we come to the Parliament House, it is not a traditional place, it is the Westminster system … and who is the boss of Parliament House? It’s Queen Elizabeth. It’s a woman. It is not a hausman.”
On voting day in Kessy Sawang’s village, dozens of her supporters – male and female – wore the “Votim Meri” (Vote Women) T-shirts given out at the workshops in Madang. The discussions there were a game-changer in her community, she says. “They really helped to break down the mindset of people toward women.”
“The people here, for 47 years [since independence] have had the same shit. They don’t want to believe anyone,” says Sawang. Through educating rather than traditional campaigning, “I empower them with the knowledge, so people feel confident and have the words to speak. They can question the campaign messages – we explain their rights under the constitution.”
Matilda Koma reports a similar seismic shift after Kidu landed on the one working airstrip in her district, and 90 people turned up to hear her. “A lot of people think Parliament House is for men alone, and she was trying to tell them it’s not the men’s house, it’s the people’s house. There must be women there.” For a while, it “totally changed their minds, to vote for women”.
But from the little information now trickling in from her Goilala Open electorate – phone networks have been down across the district – something or someone has lately interfered. What, she can’t say, “but I’ve heard from people that the whole valley has changed their mind, gone back to the men”.
‘We remain hopeful, in spite of everything’
The structural issues locking women out of power – money, corruption – “are still very much present”, says Dr Orovu Sepoe, a political scientist who has been documenting women’s politics and activism in PNG over decades. “Something new has to happen. If we have zero women [in parliament] again, that will highlight the problem. And we have to recognise it as a problem – it’s not normal.”
Part of what’s gone wrong, she argues, is that notions of custom have been twisted to serve male political interests, obscuring recognition of the traditional authority women held in many PNG cultures.
“We also have to get the message across strongly that a culture that breeds violence is not good culture. We need to draw a line, to say that we need peace, we need order, for society to progress.”
Sepoe co-authored a paper published just before the election which was not optimistic about women’s chances in 2022, arguing that while considerable work had been undertaken to support them, too much remained undone. The only reform that could have guaranteed women in the parliament – the introduction of temporary special measures to reserve seats for women, which Sepoe has championed for years – has stalled repeatedly since 2009, despite the concept being supported by the then-prime minister, Sir Michael Somare.
“But we remain hopeful, in spite of everything,” says Sepoe.
As counting drags on, those hopes in 2022 turn on close scrutiny and public pressure forcing some integrity on the process. If not, the hard-earned votes of candidates risk being corruptly stolen, or lost in the maelstrom.
It is a shattering prospect given the huge logistical and physical challenges of campaigning in PNG. For Dulciana Somare-Brash, 49, a public policy specialist, second-time candidate and the daughter of the late prime minister, a day on the hustings could mean “travelling in the rain for four hours up river, you run out of fuel, there’s a low tide, you get stuck in reeds and you get killed by mosquitoes”. But, she says, she’s fortunate – she could bankroll the entourage and eight drums of fuel a week required to get to her potential voters. But the obstacles go much further than this.
“I do want the world to understand it’s not just the campaigning, and it’s not just now the voting,” she says.
With the failure of the PNG electoral commission to deliver on its basic technical and legal responsibilities, she says, the onus has fallen on candidates to secure ballot boxes and protect their investment of hard-yards campaigning.
“Nobody on God’s green earth can deem these elections free and fair, because of the anomalies that they are presenting – and they are in the places that we know about. What about the other places, where people have just taken all the ballot boxes out and just filled in all the ballot papers – some of them in there without serial numbers? And yet when they arrive in the counting centres, no one flinches.
“We are only as good as our processes.”
When voting finished in Central Province over a week ago, the word coming to Carol Kidu from trusted number-crunchers was that Rufina Peter was in strong contention. But for days the ballot boxes were stranded in the Goilala district, Peter’s home turf and a stronghold for her vote. The electoral commission told her they would be transported for counting aboard a helicopter owned by her opponent, the governor, Robert Agarobe.
Peter and Kidu protested publicly to the commission that this represented a conflict of interest and was not appropriate. The boxes were reportedly moved by PNG Defence.
“To be honest,” says Kidu, “I am very concerned about the future of PNG.”
At the time of publication, Kessy Sawang is leading in Madang Rai Coast. Rufina Peter is running second in the Central Province Seat. Matilda Koma finished 6th in a field of 38. Dulciana Somare-Brash was also unsuccessful but numbers were not published. There are four women still in the top five in other undeclared seats: Delilah Gore in Sohe Open (2nd), Jean Eparo Parkop in Northern Provincial (3rd), Vikki Mossine in Rigo Open (4th) and Diane Unagi Koiam in Port Moresby North East Open (5th).