09th July, 2012
GREY-BEARDED Simon Parua Kuri, aged about 82, is a revered former ”big man” in politics around Mount Hagen, emerging from a semi-literate traditional background to hold a seat in Parliament for 15 years, and fathering 17 children from his four wives.
His daughter Margareth Tini Parua, 48, is a Port Moresby lawyer (with one husband and one child) who is seeking to show that women have something to offer in politics.
She is back in her Western Highlands village in the coffee-growing country outside Mount Hagen, running against 24 male candidates in elections for Parliament, hoping to capture the seat once held by her father and later for three years by her late elder brother Reuben.
Voting originally set for Friday is now scheduled for tomorrow after logistical problems and rioting kept army and police forces needed for polling security back in the restive Southern Highlands and Hela provinces.
The family ties help, and Ms Parua has returned usually three times a year to the home she keeps in her village, but she is denigrated by some of her rivals for being an inconsequential woman. ”They say women don’t stand up in a sing-sing place and speak out on behalf of the clan or tribe, and therefore women can’t stand up and speak for us in Parliament,” she said.
Her campaign seeks a way around this. ”On the campaign trail my brothers – from the clan and the tribe we call each other brothers and sisters – say mothers are good managers of the home so why don’t you vote for Margareth?” Ms Parua said.
”A mother knows how to manage a home, it starts from home, so if you can manage your home, you go out, the basic understanding and expectation is the mother will manage whatever else she touches.”
It’s a simple line, but getting under a few skins. One rival candidate and his supporters threw rocks at her car in an ambush three weeks ago, resulting in his arrest when the lawyer promptly filed a police complaint.
Ms Parua’s other message is that Dei district has been ill-served by its previous representatives, who handle disbursements under Papua New Guinea’s controversial District Services Improvement Program, which allots 10 million kina (about $A5 million) a year to each MP to allocate at his or her discretion.
Under the sitting member, she says, nothing has happened and roads, bridges and schools are in decay. ”We have a big health centre in our district. It’s been untouched for last five years. It doesn’t have an ambulance. It doesn’t have a doctor. The secondary school doesn’t have a generator,” Ms Parua said.
”Things are really bad. Mothers die from diseases and children die from diseases which are preventable. They’ve got the facilities there but they’re just like white elephants. They’ve got the facilities there but there’s no doctor, there’s no medicine, the basic things are lacking.”
Ms Parua said she decided only recently to have a go at fixing things. ”It only just happened because I realised that our people need somebody who knows what’s happening and who realises and understands the sufferings and the pains they are going through,” she said.
Only 137 women are standing for election among the 3435 candidates for the 110 seats in Parliament. In the 37 years since independence, Papua New Guinea has only had three female MPs, with the most recent, Australian-born Dame Carol Kidu, retiring at this election. Last year Dame Carol led a push to reserve 22 seats for women, partly inspired by the reservation of four seats for women in the regional assembly set up on Bougainville island as part of an autonomy package to end a separatist war.
Ms Parua says the women of Bougainville have been an ”eye-opener” for women in the rest of Papua New Guinea. But pushing for 22 seats was very optimistic. ”Perhaps if they had started with a smaller number it may have worked,” she said.
A sign of how much women are suppressed in the highlands has been the reticence of local women in voicing support for her.
”I was very surprised by the response that I got from the menfolk,” Ms Parua said. ”It’s more positive and more responsive than from the females. It’s not that they don’t support me, it’s mainly to do with the fact that the man is the boss in the family unit.
”It’s really sad, because they can’t express themselves, they can’t speak out freely to say, ‘Margareth you’re doing a good thing for us, I support you, I don’t care who my husband is supporting.’ It’s not happening yet.”
Ms Parua has gone out much further than most of the younger women in Dei. She studied hard in school before studying law at the University of PNG. Then followed time as a judge’s associate, service with a law firm in Port Moresby and Brisbane, in-house legal work for government, and her own practice since 1999.
For all that, her campaigning is very traditional. ”If I try to be different – I want to be, but I cannot be because the culture has been maintained – I know I won’t stand a chance,” she said. ”It’s a very sad thing, a bad culture that’s so well and truly entrenched. There are two things controlling the elections now: the tribal system and cash. If I step out of my tribe and go to another tribal area, they will unashamedly come and tell me the No. 1 vote goes to the candidate from their tribe or an allied tribe, but the other preferences, numbers two and three, it’s for sale. They say it.
”That places me in a very difficult situation, because my background is I’m the Electoral Commissioner’s lawyer and I’m also the Police Commissioner’s lawyer!”
She is wary of gifts. People from another tribe might invite her to come and talk about her policies, and kill some pigs and chickens for the occasion, then later present her with a list of expectations.
”Even if you lose, that is an obligation which you’ll have to repay at a later time.” People are still turning up at her house claiming debts owing for favours allegedly given to her father 30 years before.
But she is ready to turn on the pigs herself, and provided a hundred pigs for a ceremony marking the 10th anniversary of her brother’s funeral to thank everybody who attended.
By Hamish Macdonald, The Age online news portal, published July 1, 2012