‘Still so much to do’

March 23, 2021

Women in Papua New Guinea stand united for equality.

Resident Representative, Dirk Wagener

National Women’s Day reminds us of the critical role women play in ensuring healthy, prosperous, and successful societies. It also reminds us of the barriers they continue to face in achieving true equality.

The theme for this year’s National Women’s Day highlights that the full and effective empowerment of women will only be realized when they can participate in all areas of life free from the fear of violence. And it is violence against women that remains one of the greatest impediments that women face in Papua New Guinea.

Gender-based, sexual and family violence is a stain on Papua New Guinea. It hangs like a weight on the country’s national development. It hampers economic growth, and with it, the social mobility of so many people.  Worst of all, it has fractured communities, destroyed lives, and has eaten into the social fabric of the country.

For a country as great as Papua New Guinea, this stain is unfortunately a measure by which many around the world see it. If we add the fact that there isn’t a single female member in the current National Parliament and that Papua New Guinea ranks on place 161 of 162 countries on the global Gender Equality Index, we are reminded on what we need to focus on.

There are many things that Papua New Guineans should be proud of. We all know the natural wonders and the cultural diversity. These are to be protected and they are to be cherished. But what Papua New Guinea should be most proud of, is its diverse people and culture. They are the beating heart of this country.

But that heart is labouring under levels of violence that have struck at the very fabric of what it means to be a Papua New Guinean.

It cannot be that in a society, families are held in such high regard on the one hand, yet the institution of family and the sanctity of home is sadly often so disrespected on the other.

The scourge of gender-based violence, is that it makes us all victims. It perpetuates cycles of violence across generations, that over time, start to seem normal.

But it is not normal, to live in a society where 2 out 3 women can expect to be physically or sexually assaulted at least once in their lives. It is not normal that a woman or a girl, cannot enjoy the same freedoms, protections or opportunities as their male counterparts can.

On National Women’s Day in Papua New Guinea, I am proud of the contributions that the United Nations and United Nations Development Programme is making towards eliminating violence against women and girls.

In partnership with the European Union, and other UN agencies, UNDP is working closely with Government, civil society, and communities - under the EU-UN Spotlight Initiative, to deliver support to those most effected by gender and sexual violence. UNDP is also supporting more women to run for parliament through the Women Making the Change Project, funded by the governments of Australia and New Zealand. This complements UNDP’s continued efforts to support Papua New Guinea to ‘Build Forward Better,’ in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and its socio-economic impact.

The pandemic has shown us that women stand at the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis. They fill critical roles as health care workers, caregivers, innovators, community organizers and as some of the most exemplary and effective leaders in combating the pandemic. Ultimately, this crisis has highlighted both the centrality of their contributions and the disproportionate burdens that women carry.

As I close, it is fitting that we remember the late Ms. Nahau Rooney who sadly passed on 15 September 2020.  She represented the good people of Manus and the women of Papua New Guinea. Committed to women’s empowerment, she later in life also became an environmental champion. She was one of three women elected to the National Parliament in Papua New Guinea’s first post-independence election in 1977.

Remembered as hard working and audacious, she was a trail blazer for women’s rights and representation in Papua New Guinea. She is only one of seven Papua New Guinean women to have sat in the national Parliament. She perhaps more clearly than many, articulated why the empowerment of women was so crucial.

Writing in 1985 about women in politics in Papua New Guinea, she reminded us all that, and I quote:

“Women, just like men, must see their role in a representative position as providing an opportunity to participate in decision making for the creation of a better society. If women find themselves having to fight harder on issues of women’s concern or issues of social justice and social welfare, that is because their male counterparts are failing in these areas of development.”

Late Mrs. Rooney’s point was a simple one – societies are at their greatest, when all members are enabled to equally participate with respect and dignity.