Taim bilong ol meri?

by Jo Chandler

IN 1975, AS Papua New Guinea claimed its independence and imagined its future, officials set about commissioning a Parliament House for Port Moresby which might embody the spirit of the newly sovereign nation. It was a challenging task in a pulsating democracy of 850 proud ethnicities, each with distinctive language, art, songs, stories, totems, traditions; running the gamut from volatile highlanders to more chilled coastal types. Architects in the contest to design the parliament were encouraged to incorporate motifs from across the land in the (vain) hope this might mitigate offence, in a country where identity is defined by clan, rivalries run deep and symbolism is potent.

One core directive was to render the new capital 'in the manner of a Haus Man (men's house) in a village society', familiar across most communities as the seat of local authority. The eventual structure, which opened in 1984, fulfilled the brief with a soaring interpretation of a Sepik spirit house, where men assemble and perform secret rituals.

There was some nervousness that noses might be out of joint at Sepik culture seizing star billing, and some were, but the Prime Minister of the day, proud Sepik son Michael Somare was apparently most satisfied. What women might have thought about this shrine to masculine authority appears not to have been much of a consideration. And so it was that even the architecture of power in modern PNG conspired to lock women out. Custom banned women from entering, even approaching, a Haus Tambaran, as the Parliament is colloquially known.

Nonetheless, intriguingly, the mosaic over the public entrance to the Parliament depicts two warriors – one male, one female – of equal size and on equal footing, standing guard over the country's resources. This was likely an expression of aspiration, according to an anthropological analysis of the influences that shaped the building. Today it just smacks of cruel delusion.

Much has changed in a country that has undergone warp-speed transition from traditional life through colonisation, self-government, independence and modernisation in less than three generations, but not women's place. Dr Betty Lovai, one of the nation's most senior female academics, attests that even for women like herself 'to speak up, in front of men, can be deeply intimidating'. A female political candidate, she says, is making a bold declaration: 'I am the leader of this tribe.'

Those women who have tried say that as daunting as it is to violate the Haus Man, this is the least of their problems. It merely requires courage, and PNG women are not short on that. Other obstacles – money, status, education, security, connections – are more elusive.

Thirty years on, PNG womanhood is still more honestly portrayed by the figure tucked in the bottom left corner of the entrance mosaic, staggering under the burden of her bilum – the bag loaded with food for her family. Some 95 per cent of PNG women work in subsistence agriculture or fisheries, according to 2012 Monash University-led research into women's political participation in the Pacific, the burden of their duties in home and garden one of the hurdles to obtaining the education and resources to stand as candidates.

Since the first national election in independent PNG in 1977, only seven women have been elected. One was white – Dame Carol Kidu, the Queensland-born widow of former Chief Justice Sir Buri Kidu – and two were married to white men. Three gained their seats only last year – a watershed – in the one hundred and eleven member chamber.

'Since 1977, we've had eight elections which have filled a total of eight hundred and seventy-four parliamentary seats. Ten of them have been won by women [Dame Carol winning three times, Dame Josephine Abaijah twice],' observes Deni ToKunai, a young lawyer who is PNG's most eminent political blogger, better known by his Twitter handle 'Tavurvur' (for the muttering volcano in sight of his home island). 'That's a strike rate of about 1 per cent.' It reflects the wider story in the Pacific, which has the lowest female political participation in the world. Pacific parliaments (excluding Australia and New Zealand) have an average of only 3.65 per cent women – sixteen women among four hundred and thirty-eight MPs – according to Inter-Parliamentary Union figures.

FOR A MOMENT on 23 November 2011, it looked as if something profound might be about to happen to change women's influence in PNG society, something that promised to rupture the invisible walls around the Haus Tambaran. It came in the midst of a political and constitutional maelstrom – between the newly declared O'Neill Government's effort to remove the Chief Justice for fraud, and the Supreme Court's ruling that Peter O'Neill's ousting of the long-enduring Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare was unconstitutional.

The rival camps of 'big men' were locked in a bitter, paralysing, madcap and at times menacing battle for the perks and power of incumbency ahead of the looming 2012 national poll. The business of government foundered, threatening the passage of critical and hard-fought Bills. One was the Equality and Participation Bill, or Women's Bill, put forward by the sole female in the House, Dame Carol Kidu. Having flagged her retirement, at sixty-two, she and others were concerned that the obstacles facing women candidates were so overwhelming that not one female would succeed in 2012. They proposed creating twenty-two seats reserved for women candidates, one for each province, as a 'special measure' until the culture became more inclusive.

The Bill to amend the Constitution was the product of years of effort and dispute – leaders in PNG being as divided on affirmative action as they are anywhere – but the fractured women's lobby had largely endorsed it, it had powerful male backers, and the first of two steps was finally before the Parliament. Next would come an amendment to electoral law to create the seats.

Women in national colours and bright meri blouses – the fashion staple endowed by the missionaries, whose legacy is widely regarded as having entrenched women's lowly status – stacked the public gallery, hectoring the men on the floor, demanding their votes. Dame Carol tried to shush them, fearing their behaviour would tip waverers the wrong way. PNG men – and women – don't much like bikhet (bighead, arrogant) meris.

After Prime Minister O'Neill spoke powerfully in favour of the constitutional amendment to allow the reserved seats, declaring that 'only with the input of women will PNG go on and thrive to become a great nation', the vote was seventy-two to two, a handful of members abstaining, and a couple of dozen absent.

Women in the gallery and on the steps of parliament erupted: dancing, weeping, embracing. Precious kinas worth of phone credit were punched into clapped-out handsets, the Digicel coconut wireless broadcasting the news across the land. Greens leader Dorothy Tekwie, a champion of the Bill, was in her distant village near Vanimo when word came. She could barely be heard above the racket. 'They were just jubilant, clapping their hands,' she told me when she found a quiet corner to take my call. 'The men too shouting taim bilong ol meri – time for women.'

The president of the National Council of Women, Scholla Kakas, described the Bill as 'a cry of the mothers of this nation… 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.' Lack of basic medical care means the risk of dying from pregnancy in PNG is one in twenty-six; in Australia it is one in 10,000. Domestic and social brutality – the epidemic manifestation of women's lack of power and status – is an emergency in parts of the highlands where Medecins Sans Frontiers teams deal daily with women chopped by bush knives (machetes), limbs broken, faces beaten, many suffering horrific sexual trauma and even torture.

'It is a new dawn breaking for a golden era of change,' Kakas told the ABC. The women dancing around the lake in their exotic plumage captivated a photographer from The Australian, Stuart McEvoy, there because his newspaper expected the political brawling might explode. His pictures capture the hope, hunger and desperation of women in PNG, and their elation that their voices might soon be heard in the men's house.

But it was a mirage. Even as she fielded congratulatory calls, Dame Carol discovered the critical second part of the proposal had vanished from the notice paper. Unless the enabling legislation was also passed, the women's seats would not be in place for the 2012 poll. She'd been gazumped. Dame Carol today says she fears the Bill is 'dead in the water'.

Since the election, the momentum for 'special measures' has waned, and expert analysts are wondering whether a modicum of success, three women MPs, might unravel five years of hard slog for women's representation which culminated in the reserved seats push.

One of the new women, Loujaya Toni, the Minister for Community Development, responsible for the women's portfolio, passionately condemned reserved women's seats as unfair to men. She and her two female colleagues had come through against the odds, against men, earning respect, she said in parliament. They would educate others on how it could be done. There should be no 'free ride' for women while men struggled for their mandate, she declared.

'This statement brought a loud uproar of laughter amongst male parliamentarians who happily agreed,' according to a PNG-FM radio news report. It was business as usual in the Haus Tambaran.

'I FEAR THAT the election of three women in 2012 may be a fluke,' says Dr Anne Dickson-Waiko, a senior lecturer in history and gender studies at the University of PNG. 'It's happened before – the election of three women into the national parliament in 1977. My response to the claim "it can be done" is yes, it can be done – but can it be done again and again and again?'

The narratives of the elected trio reveal the expected – that hard work, determination and strategy were critical to success. But equally luck, geography, quirks of local character and – for one – divine intervention apparently also played a part. Life's lottery delivered Dellilah Gore, the new member for Sohe, a couple of defining advantages. One was to be born into a community in the northern foothills of the Owen Stanley Ranges, with a democratic ethos embedded in its culture. The other was to have a father who was a paramount chief in their village of Sasembata and who was, according to local gossip, was just a little crazy when it came to his daughters. 'He had dreams for us,' recalls Gore, the eldest of four girls with no brothers. 'In those days if you were a chief's daughter, you would be engaged to another chief's son, in another village. But my father didn't want to sell us off. A lot of other people in the village – other chiefs – didn't agree. But he said "my daughters will have their own choice of men, and they will be educated".'

This was not the limit of Gideon Pueka's ambition for his daughters. He talked to them about politics. As a politician he was engrossed in 'the excitement of the changes that would come with self-government, independence', Gore recalls. When the family sat down for meals he regaled his girls with stories of Josephine Abaijah, who in 1972, when Dellilah was nine, became the first woman elected to the House of Assembly. 'All the time he was talking about Josephine Abaijah. He said "one of you will have to become a politician, like her". But I didn't like to hear my father talking about that woman,' Gore says, mocking herself, the jealous daughter.

Young Dellilah did not have a political vocation. She graduated from Popondetta High School, went to secretarial college in Port Moresby and a job in the public service. She married and had children, and worked in the treasury office in her home province of Oro. Her husband died in 1998, leaving her to raise children aged eight and ten.

Over her years as a public servant, Gore found herself thinking about how things might be done better. She despaired as facilities her father and others had worked so hard to build began to fracture and fail. 'What I saw when I was a small girl, the beautiful buildings, the infrastructure, it's all vanished. In Popondetta we had a nursing school, doctors staying here. Today the buildings have deteriorated, no repairs done, the nursing school is gone, there is no power, no water supply.'

She echoes dozens of women I have interviewed across PNG, many less educated than her, who are resourceful and hungry for leadership. They espouse a kind of 'desperation feminism'. It's not ideological or ambitious, beyond securing basic services and their land – gardens, as men negotiate resources leases with helicopters full of foreign speculators. As one woman trying to set up an agricultural project in gas and oil country in the Southern Highlands said, 'The men take the new road, take the money, and go off and marry new wives.'

Dr Orovu Sepoe, a political scientist who has studied women's activism for many years, has observed that in PNG, 'women's struggle for power is not geared towards obtaining possessive or extractive power, but rather "power to empower"…inextricably linked to female gender roles.' They're concerned with the fundamental needs of families and households, especially in rural areas where 80 per cent of PNG's seven million people live. 'The role of women in PNG has largely been to "subsidise" a weak state unable to provide for its citizens. This vital role remains invisible to those in control of resources.'

An expert report prepared for the PNG National Council of Women and submitted to the United Nations in 2010 documents distress and anger in communities at the continuing deterioration and loss of services – roads, health, schools, access to water and electricity – and blatant corruption of politicians and officials. While PNG has enjoyed a resources bonanza, the report found most of the population 'have not benefited in the last thirty to forty years of the development of these natural resources'.

A paper published by the Lowy Institute in 2009 estimated that about one million people lived in extreme poverty, on less than fifty dollars a year, with limited or no access to cash income, health and education services, markets, transport and food security. Many more endure insufficient or poor services.

The dreams Dellilah Gore's father had for the country were vanishing. So she quietly resolved to revive his dream.

IN 2002, PNG had an election marred by widespread chaos and malpractice, still ranked by observers as the nation's worst. Dozens were killed; militias in the pay of wealthy candidates threatened voters with high-powered guns; ballot boxes in Enga were fire-bombed, electoral rolls were a mess and the corrupt culture of 'money politics' – vote buying – was rife. Only one of the seventy-one female candidates – Dame Carol – won a seat in the then 109-member Parliament. Dellilah Gore however hatched a stealthy ten-year plan to get elected, working her electorate of Sohe, which takes in the rugged ribbon of PNG country most familiar to Australians, the Kokoda Track.

Few candidates campaign for re-election on policy or past performance, with little of either to boast. Instead they are supported according to their largesse – feasts, funerals, flights. Few women have the wealth to buy a seat. Orovu Sepoe says that 'the way the game is played in PNG', the money knobbles women from the outset. Forking out a million kina ($500,000) on campaigns is not uncommon in some parts of the country.

Gore didn't have that kind of money. But she had a wide network through church and work. She made herself memorable. 'I did a lot of public relations. And when my election posters went up, people said "I know this woman…when we needed a dinghy, she got us a dinghy".'

She used her heritage – her father's name – and local discontent in the area devastated by Cyclone Guba in 2007 where bridges had not been repaired and schools and clinics were crumbling. 'People were exasperated after twenty-seven years voting for men who did nothing. Now they were desperate enough to vote for a woman.'

Gore was the only candidate in her home village, locking in a block vote. 'They stopped other candidates – my people trusted me.' When she campaigned in areas where local people were already committed by blood to another wantok (one-talk) she didn't push her case, but politely asked for their preferences.

The polls opened on 23 June 2012. With the exception of hotspots in the highlands, it was not as bloody as many feared, although issues of identity and illiteracy provide opportunities for vote rigging, and the logistics of many mountains and few roads remained formidable.

Only 136 of the 3,435 candidates were women, and there was pessimism that any of them would succeed although Sepoe noted that 'this time women candidates came out in a much stronger way than in previous elections, showing a lot more confidence standing up to men in the competition'.

On 10 July, Deni ToKunai – tweeting a running analysis of the results on his blog, The Garamut (named for a traditional drum) – posted 'our ninth Parliament desperately needs female representation, and Dellilah Gore may just be…PNG's fifth-ever woman MP. I hope this is the case.'

Trawling through screenshots of the election count, in Sohe there was relatively even distribution of votes between all fifty-four candidates, not the stark margins that typically emerge as a consequence of block tribal voting. Deni ToKunai argued that a woman could do well in Sohe was because local tradition was fairly egalitarian, gender was not the hurdle it was elsewhere. People cast their votes freely, 'as they were supposed to'. Most women voted for Gore, plus some men, delivering her the seat.

THE DAY AFTER Gore's win was confirmed another woman, Loujaya Toni, became the Member for Lae. ToKunai had picked her as a chance. This was her third campaign. Educated and articulate, with a masters degree in development, a poet and something of a pop star, she'd worked on the ground to build support against the long-standing incumbent – her well-regarded close clansman Bart Philemon.

Her strategy took shape as she supported her family working in the garden she inherited on the outskirts of Lae, where old families and the growing diaspora of rural families flocking to town for work and services, live without power and water. 'I got my votes not only from my own [clan] people, but from the settlements around Lae, where there is growing frustration (often explosive) about the disparity between the haves and have-nots, the lack of opportunity.

I was there every day talking to people about what their rights were. I said to them "we are all being deprived…if you can give me the political mandate, I know what I will be running with – our rights to water, to decent sanitation, to power, to a public transport system".'

Loujaya Toni said that she was careful not to present herself as a candidate for women only. 'I didn't stand on the women's votes alone. I am representing men and women.'

The biggest surprise was the victory of a third woman – Julie Soso, a grandmother of eight who defeated the incumbent, a comfortably ensconced millionaire white businessman Mal 'Kela' Smith, to win the provincial seat of Eastern Highlands and the title of governor.

Soso could bankroll her campaign; she and her husband had expanded her father's large coffee plantations and successfully invested in real estate. She also had a high profile – like Loujaya Toni, she was a third-time candidate and former local radio star, recognised women's rights advocate and church activist. 'I was not a feminist,' she says, 'but being on the radio, recording women's programs, I was challenged to speak up. Women would come to me and put their heads on my shoulder or hold my hand and say "Julie, we need you to get in there, because we can't continue to walk with our rice bag and kerosene and cooking oil and salt from that distance to that distance. Our roads are deteriorating, our health centre is deteriorating, our schools are shutting down. We really need a woman to get in there, one who sees the pains and the aches that we feel".'

Her win was 'a complete shock,' says ToKunai, 'I wouldn't have picked that at all.' The highlands are unapologetic, chest-thumping Big Man country. Custom and culture proscribe women gaining power, so a provincial seat could not be won on women's votes alone – even if women were free to cast them as they wished. 'This was the Creator's timing,' she told me. 'I knew it even before the election, I felt 2012 will be my time.' There was a feeling that people were desperate. In Eastern Highlands, they'd had ex-pat white governors and home-grown black ones, she said. 'The only change they hadn't seen and tried was a woman.'

ToKunai attributes Soso's win to luck, or strategy, in securing sufficient second and third preferences. The 2012 election was only the second outing of the limited preferential voting system and Soso – like Loujaya Toni in Lae – played the numbers, capturing just enough preferences to make it through the elimination rounds. (Eyebrows were raised at her results in some booths, but the votes were not challenged.)

Elsewhere five other women were almost elected, and 'many women ran up into the first five – it is something to be counted,' says Ume Wainetti, an activist and director of the PNG Family and Sexual Violence Committee. 'This shows there is awareness that women can be recognised as leaders – that was really something we never saw before.'

TO UNDERSTAND THE difficulties of just getting close consider the stories of two unsuccessful candidates – veteran, high-profile campaigner, the Greens' Dorothy Tekwie, and an unknown first-timer Augustiner Gari who has a strong local profile.

Kundiawa is the capital of Simbu province in the highlands. Gari's brother is the local Catholic bishop, her family is large and influential, and she is a stalwart of the parish, known for its progressive outreach and tribal peace-keeping missions. She is also the driving force behind a grassroots network bravely supporting some of the most vulnerable women in the country, including hiding women tortured as witches.

We meet at Kundiawa Hospital where the beds in the crowded women's wards are occupied by women recovering from broken bones and knife wounds inflicted by their partners, and others dying of preventable disease. PNG has some of the highest rates of cervical cancer in the world, killing at least seven hundred women a year because there is no pap screening and treatment options are woefully scarce once the malignancy shows itself. (Prevention in the form of HPV vaccine, given routinely to young women in Australia, holds great promise for developing nations, but remains beyond reach.)

Gari is from a remote part of her province, where the worst of ancient traditions and new threats – guns, marijuana, sexually transmitted disease, sudden wealth, shifting populations, social breakdown – have morphed to make life dangerous and difficult for women.

Culture has always defined female status in Simbu in the lowliest of terms. As one grassroots local activist, Agnes Sil, once memorably summed it up: 'Women were women, just women – for the kitchen and the house, to look after the animals. They were not allowed to talk in public.'

A consistent theme in the writings of anthropologists, and the musings of activists, is that while many PNG cultures have punished women, there were some traditional safeguards, now lost in the whirlwind of resources-fuelled modernisation. Global health literature recognises that societies in transition, where women begin to take on non-traditional roles including speaking up, can be perilous, with the highest levels of violence from intimate partners.

Augustiner Gari left school in year six and married at sixteen, but has seized every opportunity for training.

She is fluent in the vernacular of development and human rights advocacy. 'All forms of abuse are common in Simbu, especially to do with sorcery. Bridges [the organisation she founded] has taken steps to set up a women's and children's desk at the police station to fight those things. I see injustice everywhere.'

She tells of a youth who was arrested, bashed by police and jailed for six months after stealing a packet of biscuits. 'No one asked "why are you hungry?" We just lock the guy up. But if a parliamentarian steals millions, nothing happens.' She is a single mother with three grown children who cares for a cousin's seven orphans, and has taken in four more from the street.

Gari raised 33,000 kina for posters for her campaign from her clan and donations – 'women in Simbu, they had faith in me'. 'I have about 11,000 of my people, my tribe, and thought that would give me a good lead. But at the end of the day my people were bribed the night prior to the polling – given cash by other candidates, about 120,000 kina from one opponent.' She finished thirty-fourth in a field of seventy-three.

She is determined to try again in 2017, but not sure how best to counter corrupt opponents. 'I don't know – go look for money, and play the game the guys play? It's against my principles, we say no to corruption, to bribery. And yet people do it, corruption is the way to get there. I'm confused actually – I don't know what to do. Play dirty then get there and change it? I want to go to parliament and debate…make things happen for the little people.'

At the other end of the scale, Greens leader Dorothy Tekwie is from a prominent political family. A longtime Greenpeace and women's rights campaigner, she is one of PNG's most recognisable activists.

Her national profile meant she was considered an outside chance to win a seat in 2012, but she also faced a formidable opponent – Deputy Prime Minister Belden Namah, a swashbuckling, polarising figure. A former soldier and forests minister, he has also grown immensely wealthy from his logging operations. Money is no object in his campaigns.

Tekwie endured a bruising contest and finished poorly. 'I faced exceptional challenges,' she reflects, 'quite daunting.'

She told the media before the poll that she had been offered a six-figure sum not to stand, and had endured threats and abuse from supporters of Namah and other candidates.

Members of her own clan were bribed or pressured to vote against her, she says. The recent Monash report on women's political participation found that violence against women who speak up strongly dissuades women from participating in public life, let along seeking election.

DOROTHY TEKWIE CONSIDERS the election of three women a milestone, 'a big improvement for this country', but argues that reserved seats are now critical to capitalise on the momentum. She criticised Minister Toni over her condemnation of the Women's Bill. (Gore and Soso have also spoken, less emphatically, against reserving seats.) 'I think the three members are ill-informed. They should not have opened their mouths so soon. The rest of PNG…are looking to see what these three are going to do. They say "because we won the hard way, we stood with the men and we won, we expect all you women out there to do the same". Well, we have been doing that, and we didn't win, they should be mindful that we have other situations and conditions, and that they were blessed.' Echoing many expert commentators, she argues that the three benefited from the momentum of the Women's Bill debate.

Orovu Sepoe says she's confident that the women MPs will 'come to see the value' of the Bill and support it. If they don't there are still other MPs, many of whom – including the Prime Minister – have expressed strong support for special measures to shift the paradigm.

She expects growing appreciation amongst thoughtful male leaders that the absence of women's perspective from the public sphere, and the loss of their intimate understanding of what is not working at the grassroots, is costing PNG dearly. 'Women have a role to play in PNG. Until they are there, the wealth we are going to gain from resources will just go to waste.'

But Sepoe's optimism goes against the tide of a substantial backlash, articulated in letters-to-the editor and the lively Facebook political pages of PNG's commentariat. The 2012 poll shows that it's not necessary, the line goes – three women have won on their merits, more will in the future. It's encouraged by a notion of fairness that assumes that there is equity in the first place. Deni ToKunai argues, 'First and foremost they aren't on a level playing field to begin with – there is a cultural element to that, a financial element, and there's education. The word power – it influences the thinking of men. If we are really honest with ourselves, I think most PNG men would not be in favour of having a female MP. They might deny that, but when it counts…there's a line between saying and doing. We saw that in the social media discourse around the election – a lot of men saying "let's vote for a woman, it's time for a change" – but very few did it.'

The University of Melbourne's Dr Martha Macintyre, an anthropologist who has spent many years living and working in PNG, says that PNG men believe that if women gain some control – politically or personally – it will diminish their power. She argues that many programs ignore the anthropological archive documenting the assault this represents to deeply ingrained cultural attitudes that naturalise male entitlement.

While there's a popular assumption that the next election will see female numbers creep up, both ToKunai and Anne Dickson-Waiko argue that without a political intervention or education, it is unlikely. The intense scrutiny the new women MPs are experiencing, from running critiques of their performance to gossip about their private lives, makes them vulnerable.

A couple of years ago, in a paper reflecting on PNG women's activism in policy and development, Dickson-Waiko argued that 'women have become more vocal about issues which affect them, but we have yet to witness an effective women's movement.' Not much has changed, she says. 'Nobody is talking about women's subordination in all its forms, only issues. Not many have gone beyond the issues to analyse the basis of inequality. Women's level of education and low level of politicisation, lack of exposure to women's movements and feminism generally elsewhere…lack of leadership.'

Educated women, activist women and grassroots women occupy segregated realities; there is little meaningful engagement between them, she says, and the kind of energised and resourced policies required to cut through – as they did briefly in the 1980s – have withered.

DOROTHY TEKWIE AND Dame Carol Kidu say women's leadership is going through a painful generational shift, with their cohort retiring, wearying, or grimly holding on. They've done little to encourage and nurture the next generation. Cynicism and exhaustion with the PNG political circus also dissuades smart newcomers from the brutal fray.

Internationally, there's increasing pressure on PNG to improve women's status and safety. The UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women visited PNG and other Pacific nations last year, documenting pervasive violence fed by 'systemic and structural inequality and discrimination', and urging 'holistic solutions which address both the individual needs of women and also the social, economic and cultural barriers that are a reality in the lives of women'.

In August 2012 at the Pacific Islands Forum, Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced $320 million for a ten-year program to 'expand women's leadership and economic and social opportunities in the region'. It was this announcement, and her quote that 'societies only reach their full potential if women are politically participating', that provoked Sydney radio's Alan Jones' infamous declaration that 'women are destroying the joint'. Somewhere in the subsequent frenzy, the plight of women in the Pacific was lost.

But external pressure can backfire domestically. Orovu Sepoe observes that there is a strong public conversation that accuses outsiders of seeking to usurp PNG's cherished identity and traditions with imposed ideas, a neocolonial cultural interference.

These issues will be exposed when Governor Julie Soso presents her bill seeking to outlaw polygamy. The customary context that once allowed tribal leaders to marry more than one woman is being abused, she says 'any man can have more than one wife and that is creating a problem in our society. Polygamous marriages are not conducive to women making their own decisions. It is an outdated practice.' There are many educated men, and plenty of uneducated ones, who argue otherwise.

JUST DAYS AFTER her election was confirmed, the new MP for Lae and Minister for Community Development, Loujaya Toni, was summoned to the Cook Islands to meet US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the Pacific Islands Forum. Over a rushed lunch in the MPs dining room at the Haus Tambaran, where we are the only women not serving food, she tells the story. 'I was blown away. Iwalk in and I notice Madam Clinton is on the other side of the lawn…she asked, "where's Minister Toni from Papua New Guinea?" ' Clinton invited Toni to present to the meeting. 'At the end I gave her a bilum, on behalf of the women of PNG.'

We talk about the huge learning curve for her and the other new MPs – procedures, systems, unwritten rules – and about the Women's Bill. As she tells the Haus in her controversial speech a few days later, she doesn't want it to go ahead – ever. She agrees it was useful and provided an 'enabling environment' for candidates like her, and was instructive for voters and politicians. But Minister Toni will oppose it if it is re-introduced, because women on a 'free ride' will never be respected as an equal. There is a double standard, a reality, that must be recognised, she says – women must win their seats like a man, but then must behave like, well, women. 'This is male Melanesian politics we're talking about. (Women) have to maintain a certain level of decorum… You must be respectful. You must win respect.'

She concedes it is difficult to be confident, forthright and make your stand, but not to bruise male sensitivities. 'You're talking about a changing culture. It doesn't happen overnight. But we are at a point of transition – where you have to change or be left behind. And there is some urgency in the timing.'

As we talk, her husband, whom she has appointed as a key aide, is trying to pull her away. There's been a lot of chatter on Facebook about his behaviour, damning him for bullying and worse. A couple of weeks later Minister Toni takes out an intervention order against him to protect herself and her children. In this she is like countless other professional PNG women who pay a painful price at home for their success. She addresses the gossip squarely at a media conference. 'I'm rising above that,' she says. 'Yes, the issues that are involved with my personal life are in court, I'm "a dog's breakfast" but I'm not worried about that. The heart that I have is for Lae and we will turn Lae around in the next five years and leave the critics for dead.'

'Just watch my game, I'm a woman, not a man,' she said. 'In PNG politics, they say ol meri save karim bilum (women carry the bilum). Mi save karim bilum na kam bek long hauslain (I carry the bilum back to the people). When the woman opens the bilum, we have something for everybody, even the dogs and pigs that we raise.'

A reporter observed 'an emotional Toni said she would make a difference for Lae despite being a woman'. The bilum, the women's burden, has some miles to travel yet.

From Griffith REVIEW Edition 40: WOMEN & POWER © Copyright Griffith University & the author.