The celebrations when news broke that Rufina Peter had been elected governor of Papua New Guinea’s Central Province had a particular sweetness.
Not only had she won a bruising, exhausting and at times dangerous campaign, but she would be the first woman elected to her country’s parliament in a decade. She will be just the eighth female MP in the country’s history.
But Peter, an economist, almost didn’t get to go to high school.
Peter’s home village is in the rugged Owen Stanley Range – a short flight but a tough six-plus hour drive from the capital, Port Moresby, when the road is passable.
One of eight children, she and her older brother were due to start high school the same year. “And my mother said: ‘Oh, let Rufina stay and help me and let Jimmy go to high school’. And my father said: ‘No – she worked hard, and she’s going to high school’,” says Peter.
The family were lucky – the Catholic-run high school at the government station of Tapini had a good academic reputation. But the costs of having four kids in high school simultaneously were beyond her father’s income as a medical orderly. “I had to start working at a very young age to take care of my school fees, clothes, the basic necessities,” says Peter.
“I was grateful that someone spoke up. And instead of it being my mother, it was my father.”
Last year as Peter, 52, prepared for the 2022 election campaign, male authority again cracked opened the door to opportunity. Chiefs from Tapini and other centres in her home district, including a former provincial governor, broke with their male leadership tradition to give her their endorsement.
Having surprised all by getting the most votes of any female candidate in the country in the 2017 election, Peter told reporters she hoped that with these men behind her, maybe this time she would get over the line.
Last Friday night, after four weeks of an election process plagued by violence, chaos, missing ballots, incomplete voter rolls and fraud allegations, Peter secured enough preferences to unseat the sitting member, high-profile businessman Robert Agarobe.
The result triggered a cascade of social media congratulations and relief that after five years of all-male rule, and 10 years since a woman was elected, at least one of the 118 seats of the next PNG parliament would be held by a woman.
“Rufina is intelligent. She stands for everything we call democracy and good governance,” says Dr Orovu Sepoe, a political scientist and expert on women’s activism in PNG.
Peter was Sepoe’s student in the 1990s, before going on to senior roles in agricultural and economic policy and banking.
“Her win is a plus for PNG and all women after the disappointing drought following the 2017 election.”
Just one other woman remains in contention for a seat in the next PNG parliament. Kessy Sawang, a former senior PNG treasury official and deputy commissioner of customs, is still in contention for the Madang Rai Coast seat, where counting has dragged for over two weeks.
Sepoe says that if, as it appears, only one or two women are elected, “they may be expected to shoulder the weight of four million-plus women of PNG. This is an injustice. This election was messy from day one, and has not done justice to many capable female candidates.”
The prime minister, James Marape, has said his Pangu party has the numbers to form a coalition government. In that event Peter, a member of the People’s National Congress (PNC) party headed by former prime minister Peter O’Neill, will be on the opposition benches.
Peter says she initially decided to run for office out of frustration at the continued deterioration of infrastructure, services and living conditions.
After securing a strong vote in 2017, she worked full-time toward her election in 2022, travelling to villages across the province, handing out her CV and trying to persuade voters that supporting a woman was in their interests.
“I had to challenge them about the perceptions of women, especially women in leadership. I would just use the analogy of a woman in a home, and what she does when she wakes up, how many jobs she gets done before she sleeps … And then I say, ‘pick a woman who is qualified to run for this office, and don’t you think she is going to do the same in this house, this parliament house?’ Of course she is.”
It’s been exhausting and consuming. It has also been dangerous, and Peter recounts direct threats to her safety and that of her team.
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”.
So, why do it? “Because honestly, I would be equally responsible for the lack of development, and I could not live with that. You know, the least I can do is put my hand up.”