Bringing back equal participation - Gender Equality
In Papua New Guinea, like in many other societies, men are seen as head of households, chiefs, spokesmen, landowners, knowledgeable, and everything they say and do is seen as right and accepted.
Women on the other hand, are merely observers: silent, “go-with-the-flow”, belong in the kitchen, child bearers and rearers, and the last to be served.
Elizabeth Tongne, aged 46, married with a son, once a primary school teacher, is now a leading women’s advocate in the East New Britain Province of Papua New Guinea (PNG). She, along with many other women activists in PNG, is taking the leadership in addressing women’s issues and encouraging and developing more informed and empowered women in the rural areas of PNG. It was my mother who recommended that I speak to Elizabeth having known her through her work around the province, as one of the silent achievers.
According to Elizabeth, “Women need to be informed. They need to be empowered. Once women are informed and empowered, they can do all on their own to achieve great many things.”
After having to give up teaching in a Catholic mission school when she went against a certain law of the Catholic Church on the baptism of her son, Elizabeth moved back to her home, East Pomio in the East New Britain Province, in 1990.
It was there that one door closed and another opened, and she started on her journey to pursue a role in women’s advocacy. She was made President for the women’s group in her area and with no knowledge as to what she should do, she ventured out to find out more about the importance of having a women’s group.
Walking from village to village and sitting down with the women, talking and listening to them and getting their views, defined certain issues that needed addressing. Women were not being vocal about their problems; they just went along with what the men said. During village meetings, only the men would discuss and decide on certain community issues. Women were not invited to talk and thus never did. Elizabeth soon realized the importance of such groups and slowly began talking to women. With the help of the provincial council of women, they were able to assist women in building confidence, speaking out, and carrying out activities to assist in their daily living.
She found that while she was present within the community, women would freely speak out and men would allow them to speak, but as soon as she left, it was back to being as it was. She had to gain the support from the elders, and her own family to pursue and ensure that equal participation within the local community continued regardless of her being there or not. Her brothers supported her work and while Elizabeth is not in the village, they ensure that the women’s programs and participation continue.
One issue that was of great interest to Elizabeth was that, even though her local area is of matrilineal (line of mother) culture, such that women were of higher status and have rights and ownership to the land, it was not exercised. They were only observers in decisions, activities, discussions that took place regarding the land and the community. Elizabeth strived to bring this back, to have women more involved in community decisions and to take back their rights as being the land owner as per their matrilineal traditions.
Through her research into traditional settings and the past within her community and in other parts of Papua New Guinea, Elizabeth believes that it was colonialism that brought about this change of attitude. In the past, there was gender equality. Men respected women, women were heard, and the matrilineal line was stronger. Colonialism brought about change, both good and bad. One such change was that men were chosen to go to work and school, and to lead, while women were left back in the villages, in the homes. Men were given knowledge through education, which raised their status and thus the change of attitudes towards women evolved.
We now see more domestic violence, men who use their physical strength, power and status through money and education to overrule women. One good change that did occur is the opportunity also for women to go to school, learn and to take up positions in the community, workplaces and society. She believes fully that by educating and empowering a woman, you educate a family.
Today in PNG, it is still a great challenge of combining or differentiating between traditional ways with western ways, to keep the good ways and do away with the bad.
Elizabeth continues to encourage more women to be freely involved and to speak openly in discussions and make decisions within the community and society, but it proves to be a great challenge, from both men and women.
She has been criticized with rueful remarks and threats as she goes about carrying activities but continues to do so.
She recalls back to her 8 years of teaching and how it has also helped her in her work in developing programs and training for women.
“You must be able to utilize these skills you have gained. If I had said No, I won’t be able to do this, because I’m just a primary school teacher, I wouldn’t be where I am right now and doing what I am enjoying.”
Gender equality is currently a top issue in the country, such that a Bill has been put forward to the parliament for reserved seats in parliament for women. Currently in parliament, there is only 1 female member amidst the 108 male members. There has been much debate as to whether this is truly exercising equality or if it is giving women an easier way of getting into parliament. We need women to support fellow women and we need more Elizabeths to continue the good work to bring women to realize their potential and speak out to be heard.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future, which is providing rigorous web 2.0 and new media training for 30 emerging women leaders. We are speaking out for social change from some of the most unheard regions of the world.