In 1975, as Papua New Guinea claimed its independence and imagined its future, officials set about commissioning a Parliament House for Port Moresby that 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.

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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% 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 111-member chamber.

“So many of our problems as a society are faced by women … Only women can understand what must be done to make things better.”

“Since 1977, we’ve had eight elections which have filled a total of 874 parliamentary seats. Ten of them have been won by women [Dame Carol winning three times, Dame Josephine Abaijah twice],” observed 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%.” 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% women — 16 women among 438 MPs — according to Inter-Parliamentary Union figures.

For a moment, on November 23, 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 62, she and others were concerned that the obstacles facing female candidates were so overwhelming that not one woman would succeed in 2012. They proposed creating 22 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 72 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 26; 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.

*This is an edited extract from GriffithREVIEW 40: Women & Power, out now

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