My The PNG Woman column, as published in the Sunday Chronicle on 4 June 2017
The first in a multi-part series looking at gender inequality in Papua New Guinea

Gender inequality is not an abstraction; it is one of Papua New Guinea’s greatest shames. It is a burden that half of our country’s population carry as a weight every day and it is a heavy one. Many girls and women have to endure unimaginable hardship in Papua New Guinea that is completely unacceptable. There has been a dismal failure by Government to do more, much more, to address this problem.

Violence confronts girls and women in everyday situations. Females are not even safe in their own homes with the threat of domestic violence greater than violence outside. Statistics from different sources, including Department of Health, show up to 70% of women, suffer from gender-based violence. The violence includes rape, torture and murder. Our girls aren’t safe either with reports that in one year 55% of the sexual violence cases that the Public Prosecutor dealt with were abuse of children under 16 years of age. Even at the workplace there is sexual harassment and our women selling produce at markets face the threat of gender based violence.

Sorcery especially in rural Papua New Guinea is fuelled by a lack of education, a lack of drugs to treat illnesses compounded by cultural superstition make this a common perpetuation of extreme violence against women.

Health statistics for females are amongst the worst in our region. Our maternal mortality rates remain shockingly high with the adjusted ratio of 230 deaths for every 100,000 live births, compared to a regional average of 62 and 396 for war-torn Afghanistan. But many of these deaths are unnecessary. This is the great injustice. With better health education for mothers, better access to health facilities, equipment and medication and better trained heath workers especially midwives many appalling statistics could be considerably lower.

Investment in girls’ and women’s education could improve health statistics not only for women but children. Education is a human right and can influence great participation by women in economic and political spheres. The increase in access to education is commendable, universality, at least, of basic services for education and health is of paramount importance for improved well-being.

The 2011 Census Report by National Statistical Office reports that the female literacy rate of 64% is less than that of males 71%. In a recent online publication the National Research Institute show that the key goal of net enrolment rates have increased for primary education but quality of education in declining. The falling quality is reflected in educational outcomes below the standards needed to maintain high retention rates, in other words the large numbers of students seen at the primary education level will thin as they progress to secondary education. Girls face considerable disadvantages with access to education at higher grades leading to lower retention rates. Security problems abound with parental concerns for teenage girls having to travel long distance, on average for the country this is 2-3 hours, to secondary schools as well as the risk of sexual harassment from other students and teachers. The lack of drinking water and toilet facilities at schools dissuade attendance by girls – for instance, survey data showed that nearly 50% of schools needed at least 1 more toilet for girls. These are the challenges we need to be alert to and address.

The representation of women in senior leadership positions within politics, bureaucracy and commerce is poor. The 9th Parliament of PNG had only 3 women members from total of 111 seats, a dismal ratio of 2.7% in comparison to women’s share of population of just under 50%. In the most senior bureaucratic positions within Government, the central agencies, the O’Neill Government has only filled one of those agency head position with a woman in comparison to its predecessor the Somare Government that filled 4 of those 6 positions.

Our culture and government continue to shape and perpetuate the prevalence of gender inequality. Even our matrilineal societies should not be confused with a matriarchy – men continue to hold the balance of power. It is enshrined in our Constitution that there be no gender disparity: “every citizen to have equal access to legal processes and all services, government and otherwise that are required for the fulfillment of his or her real needs and aspirations”. The first and second National Goals provides that every man and women will be provided with both the freedom and the opportunities to develop their potential and in all spheres of life – political, social, educational and economic.

The Government has a moral as well as a constitutional responsibility to care for all our people. The essence of government is diminished by this failure. Prime Minister O’Neill has advanced that “as a central part of this agenda, [we must] continue to enhance the role and status of women in the life of our nation.” But the delay by Government in bringing the Family Violence Act into operation is unconscionable. The failure to appoint more women to core leadership positions based on merit is unfathomable. Now the spending cuts in the 2017 National Budget are likely to impact girls and women more than men, with the health budget slashed by around 20%. In a future column I will outline my thoughts on specific initiatives to integrate gender considerations into government processes, policy and especially budgets.

The theme of this year’s International Day of Women is “Be Bold for Change”. As a nation we have a moral duty to address the deficit of opportunities Papua New Guinea girls and women have and to empower them to realize their potential. Most of our girls and women live in a world they don’t want or deserve – it is time to be bold for change.

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