In the lead up to the 2007 national elections in Papua New Guinea, women's participation in electoral processes is still limited. AWID interviewed Robyn Slarke from Mama Lo Stoa, recipient of one of AWID's Innovation Seed Grants, about the issues women are facing in PNG, and about their project Meri Kirap (Women Arise).
AWID: You are taking part in a project entitled 'Meri Kirap (Women Arise) - Women in Elections in Papua New Guinea', which has recently been chosen as one of fourteen projects to receive an Innovation Seed Grant from AWID. Tell us about the project.
RS: Meri Kirap (Women Arise) is the rallying cry for an informal collective of women convened by Sarah Garap, Anna Golang, Janet Koriama and myself, Robyn Slarke, working for women's rights and laying the groundwork to have the first highland woman elected to the National Parliament of Papua New Guinea. We collaborate as equals and we aim to press for a greater support and protection for women candidates and voters in the Highlands.
Ajana Janet Koriama and I decided to apply for a seed grant for the Meri Kirap Campaign after the discussions which flowed from screening ''It is not an Easy Road'' - my documentary about Women in the Papua New Guinean elections, at the AWID Forum. Meri Kirap will raise consciousness nationally and internationally about the problems of women in PNG and explain the reasons for women wanting to be elected to the National Parliament. The campaign will also raise crucial issues about the security of women candidates and women voters.
Our aim is to bring the discussion of ''women in elections'' and women's rights, commenced at the AWID Forum, 'home'' to other women leaders in Papua New Guinea. We want to be able to integrate global ideas and strategies from women in other countries into our own thinking and activist work and strengthen our own connection as Highlands women's rights workers. We hope also to strengthen our connection with our Pacific sisters through
sharing the Meri Kirap campaign with them.
Our political objectives are; to press for compulsory financial support from all political parties for women candidates; to have a commitment to greater protection for women candidates from the Papua New Guinean Electoral Commission; and to call for greater public and political support for women candidates.
This campaign is to be a Highlands based initiative and it will illustrate the extreme difficulties and dangers for Highland based female candidates in Papua New Guinean elections.
Although the epicentre of the campaign will be maintained by a group of Highlands women's rights activists, Meri Kirap will have a national outreach and will invite women from all over the country to participate. This Highlands base is important since living and electoral conditions in these provinces are worse than anywhere else in the country and Highland women are often not able to participate in campaigns or courses run by government or donor agencies (due to their geographical isolation and the lack of safety for trainers or consultants to come to their areas).
Highland women are not served at all by existing national organisations because of the fear of visiting these provinces and the lack of representation of Highland women within the organisations themselves. The prohibitive cost of air travel also prevents highland women from attending courses or participating in campaigns elsewhere in PNG. (There is no road link between the remote Highlands and the national capital.) This campaign will be well timed in 2006, as it is the year leading up to the 2007 National elections.
AWID: How did you get involved in women's rights in PNG and, in particular, the restrictions that women face in the political sphere?
RS: I was a volunteer with a women's organisation in the highlands and immediately saw that there was very little that could be done to support women in development unless there could be some freedom from the terrible violence which women faced. So I began working on legal literacy in the village courts, promoting women's and children's rights, training magistrates, assisting women through the village and district courts and providing what counselling I could, to women and girls who had been raped and to those who had experienced other gender based violence.
Of course, doing this work as a woman, you are also subject to gender violence and the more successful I became at supporting women through the
courts, the more death threats I lived with. It then became apparent to me, that without national and international support, change was going to be very slow in coming. Then in 1991, I became involved with a campaign to have a woman elected to the local council and spoke at one of the very early WIP (Women in Politics) meetings in Port Moresby. This began my involvement with women and elections in PNG. (I had long before been involved in issues of women's political representation in Australia.)
The movement to help women be elected has been a strategic decision for me. I believe that this is a really worthwhile struggle and I trust that when we
do get women elected to the national parliament, that they will be focussed upon improving health, education and safety for communities and not being
distracted by the prestige of political office itself nor the financial benefits. If they take their lead from Lady Carol Kidu we will all be extremely pleased!
AWID: What are some of the major challenges regarding women's participation and inclusion in elections and electoral processes in PNG?
RS: Only one of the 109 members of the Papua New Guinean Parliament is a woman. Lady Carol Kidu was returned to her seat of Moresby South in 2002, having first been elected in 1997. Throughout the previous decade (1987 until 1997,) there were no women members of Parliament at all. There have only been two other women elected since Independence - Dame Josephine Abaijah and Dame Nahu Runi. Not one highlands woman, however, has ever been elected to the National Parliament.
Women from the Highlands are now standing as candidates in unprecedented numbers and calling for free and fair elections.
For the most-part, elections in coastal and urban areas of PNG are fair and non violent. Elections in the highlands however, are an entirely different matter. There were over thirty highland deaths in the last national election and many more serious and permanent injuries were sustained by
candidates and supporters. The first death was that of a nine year old girl who was shot in crossfire.
It is a difficult decision to encourage women to stand for election as it is not at all safe to do this in the Highlands. Women candidates are especially subject to intimidation and violence and in many cases they are forced to step down to avoid the killing of men and boys from their villages. Women candidates do, literally, risk their lives to stand for election.
AWID: How have women's organisations and collectives in PNG mobilised around these challenges?
RS: Papua New Guinean women are very strong and outspoken - when this is safe for them. So, women at every level talk about ''women's rights'',
although they usually don't use those exact words.
'Women in Politics' is a major national organisation which has focussed on this question as has the National Council of Women. As I mentioned
previously however, neither of these organisations has an effective outreach into the highlands. HELP Resources in Wewak has also undertaken extensive human rights and voter education.
A more recent campaign is now also underway called WINGS - Women in National Government Support. Meri Kirap will be working with this new group.
AWID: How does 'Meri Kirap' hope to facilitate change in this area?
RS: During our proposed three day gathering, women leaders will be invited to meet with the Meri Kirap team to discuss a nationwide strategy to assist
women in elections. The one female member of the Papua New Guinean Parliament, Lady Carol Kidu, will be invited to address the group.
This preparatory gathering of Meri Kirap members hopes to generate; Initial media attention regarding the problems of women candidates in PNG National Elections, Widespread support for a Media Forum on ''Women in Elections'', Financial support from donor agencies for a Media Forum, Political support, in particular, from the Prime Minister for the Forum.
Approaches will be made to the PNG Prime Minister, political party leaders, the PNG Electoral Commission and the PNG Media Council to set a date for a Media Forum on ''Women in Elections'' in PNG. At this proposed Media Forum the film ''It is Not an Easy Road'' will be screened. This film represents rare footage of the 2002/2003 national PNG elections and the only series of interviews with women candidates. This documentary is the first of its kind in PNG (and perhaps the region?) about women in elections.
Initial approaches to donor agencies will also be made from this meeting. All PNG women's organizations and NGO's will be invited to participate in this campaign as it has a national focus.