Shouldering the weight of four million women: PNG elects its first female MP in a decade | Papua New Guinea

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The celebrations at the news of Rufina Peter’s election as governor of the central province of Papua New Guinea had a special sweetness.

Not only had she won a deadly, exhausting and sometimes dangerous campaign, but she would go on to be the first woman elected to her country’s parliament in a decade. She will only be the eighth female MP in the country’s history.

But Peter, an economist, almost didn’t go to high school.

Peter’s home village is in the rugged Owen Stanley Range – a short flight but over six hours difficult 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 in the same year. “And my mom said, ‘Oh, let Rufina stay and help me and let Jimmy go to high school.’ And my dad said, ‘No, she’s been working hard and she’s going to high school,'” Peter says.

The family was lucky – the Catholic high school at the government station in Tapini had a good academic reputation. But the cost of having four children in high school simultaneously exceeded her father’s income as a nurse. “I had to start working at a very young age to take care of my school fees, my clothes, the basic necessities,” says Peter.

“I was grateful someone spoke up. And instead of it being my mom, it was my dad.

Last year, as Peter, 52, prepared for the 2022 election campaign, once again cracked male authority opened the door to opportunity. The chiefs of Tapini and other centers in his home district, including a former provincial governor, broke with their tradition of male leadership to give him their approval.

After surprising everyone by getting the most votes of any female candidate in the country in the 2017 election, Peter told reporters that she hoped that with these men behind her, maybe this time she would top terminals.

Last Friday night, after four weeks of an election process plagued by violence, chaos, missing ballots, incomplete voter lists and allegations of fraud, Peter secured enough preferences to overthrow the incumbent, renowned businessman Robert Agarobe.

The result sparked a cascade of congratulations on social media 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 in PNG’s next parliament would be held. by a woman.

“Rufina is smart. She represents everything we call democracy and good governance,” says Dr. Orovu Sepoe, a political scientist and specialist in women’s activism in PNG.

Peter was a student of Sepoe in the 1990s, before moving into senior positions in agricultural and economic policy and banking.

“Her victory is a plus for PNG and all women after the disappointing drought that followed the 2017 election.”

Kessy Sawang, who is running for the Madang Rai Coast seat, is the only other female candidate still vying for a seat in this year’s elections. Photograph: Godfreeman Kaptigau/The Guardian

Only one other woman remains in the running for a seat in PNG’s next parliament. Kessy Sawang, a former senior PNG treasury official and deputy customs commissioner, is still in the running for the Madang Rai Coast seat, where the count has been dragging on for more than two weeks.

Sepoe says that if, as it seems, only one or two women are elected, “you can expect them to carry the weight of more than four million women in PNG. It is an injustice. This election was messy from day one and did not do justice to many qualified women candidates.

Prime Minister James Marape said his Pangu party had the numbers to form a coalition government. In this event, Peter, a member of the People’s National Congress (PNC) party led by former Prime Minister Peter O’Neill, will be on the opposition benches.

Peter says she first 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 for her election in 2022, traveling to villages across the province, distributing her CV and trying to persuade voters that supporting a woman was in their interests.

A woman waits to vote at the polling station at Gordons International School.  Eastern Electorate in Port Moresby
A woman waits to vote at the polling station at Gordons International School. Eastern Electorate in Port Moresby Photograph: Godfreeman Kaptigau/The Guardian

“I had to challenge them on perceptions of women, especially women leaders. I would just use the analogy of a woman in a house, and what she does when she wakes up, how much work she does before I go to sleep… And then I say, ‘choose a woman who is qualified to run for that office, and don’t you think she’s going to do the same thing in this house, this house of parliament? ‘she is.

It was exhausting and consuming. It was also dangerous, and Peter recounts direct threats to his safety and that of his team.

As a recent analysis by Pacific Women’s Political Empowerment Research candidly observed of PNG, “the barriers that all women face when campaigning – namely violence, corruption and the politics of money – are still almost insurmountable”.

So why do it? “Because honestly, I would also be responsible for the lack of development, and I couldn’t live with that. You know, the least I can do is raise my hand.


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