WOMEN danced, wept and embraced outside the Papua New Guinea Parliament yesterday as years of campaigning culminated in a watershed vote to allow 22 reserved seats for women in the almost exclusively male chamber, where just one of 109 seats is presently held by a female.
With time running out before the 2012 general election, expectation and anxiety were high among supporters of the bill, with women loudly admonishing MPs from the packed public gallery when the debate was delayed on Tuesday.
But encouraged by Prime Minister Peter O’Neill, the constitutional amendment to allow the women’s seats, one for each province, was eventually passed by 72 votes to two, with several members abstaining and some absent.
”Only with the input of women will PNG go on and thrive to become a great nation,” said Mr O’Neill.
The president of the National Council of Women, Schola Kakas, described the move as ”a cry of the mothers of this nation”.
She added: ”So many of our problems as a society are faced by women – health, violence, maternal mortality. Only women can understand what must be done to make things better.
One of the nation’s most seasoned female political campaigners, Greens leader Dorothy Tekwie, was in the country’s remote north-west when she heard the news. She said women around her were overjoyed at the bill, which she said was required if women were to push through fiercely male-dominated political and social cultures.
”They were just jubilant, clapping their hands. They said – the men too – ‘Taim bilong ol meri’ – ‘time for women’.”
Celebrations were later tempered by confusion even among experts and key players as to whether the Equality and Participation Bill (or the Women’s Bill, as it is widely known) faces another legislative hurdle if the women’s seats are to be in place in time for next year’s general election.
Dame Carol Kidu, the sole elected woman in the Parliament and sponsor of the bill, said a critical second element of the bill had vanished from the notice paper, but she hoped it would be resolved in the next few days. If not, the seats would probably not be in place by the poll.
This issue remains on a knife edge, she said, as the enabling legislation will require more votes to pass than the number which secured the constitutional reform yesterday.
The vote marked a huge milestone in PNG and signalled a hunger for change in the nation, said Dame Carol. ”A lot of people who in the early days said they would never support it are supporting it now. So whatever happens, there has been huge progress.”
Queensland-born Dame Carol, 63, the widow of former chief justice Sir Buri Kidu, will retire at next year’s election. Given entrenched cultural and financial barriers to women’s participation in politics, there were wide concerns that PNG could become the 10th nation in the world without a single elected female, most of them being Australia’s near neighbours in the Pacific.
”The changes are very significant,” said Dr Jim Macpherson, a member of the PNG legislative working group. ”They are the first changes to the membership of Parliament since independence – and in some ways a stunning reversal and recognition of the way gender assumptions have excluded women from decision-making.”
Another key vote cemented the creation of electorates in two new provinces – including the critical electorate of Hela, home to the $US16 billion PNG liquid natural gas project. ”No Hela, No Gas” had been a local refrain, raising anxieties about the security of the Exxon-Mobil lead highlands project.
The votes come during a tumultuous period in PNG politics following the vote on August 2 that installed Mr O’Neill as Prime Minister, ousting Sir Michael Somare.
The constitutional legitimacy of the decision by Speaker Jeffrey Nape to declare the office of Prime Minister vacant, triggering the vote that deposed Sir Michael, 73, is the subject of a Supreme Court reference.
Last week the Deputy Prime Minister, Belden Namah, and the Attorney-General, Dr Allan Marat, were arrested and bailed for contempt of court after they led a bid by the cabinet to suspend Chief Justice Sir Salamo Injia while Mr O’Neill was in Hawaii for the APEC summit.
They accused the Chief Justice of financial rorting, but were in turn accused of trying to sabotage his delivery of the full bench judgment on the legitimacy of their government, due on December 9. With AAP
11/24/2011 – 13:00