Hordes of newly elected Papua New Guinean MPs are now engaged in post-election horse-trading (or as one blogger puts it, the 'PNG shuffle'). As those with power stitch together a coalition government, one side story is attracting some deserved attention.

Two women have achieved the virtually impossible and been elected to Papua New Guinea's male-dominated Parliament: poet and activist Loujaya Toni (who ousted her own grandfather*, veteran politician Bart Philemon, to win Lae) and former district treasurer Delilah Gore (Sohe Open).

 

To call PNG's parliament male-dominated is an understatement. Since the country's first national election in 1977, there have been eight polls, including this year's, which have filled a total of 874 parliamentary seats (thanks to blogger Tavurvur for the counting assistance). Among these, only six have been held by women; that's a hit rate of 0.69%.

Of course, women can run but there are barriers to entry: campaign cash, political connections and the traditional 'big man' style of politics. These dissuade some women from entering the race but for those who do stand for election, it's an uphill battle in a system that favours money and men and, above all, men with money.

I don't wish to detract from what has been achieved at this election. For PNG, 2012 brings the best female representation in parliament since the 1977 election (which brought 3 women to power). But looking at the historical trends and the current situation, it is hard to find a more inequitable democratically elected parliament in the world. And this blatant inequality will not be reversed without both domestic and international pressure that helps facilitate more debate on the role of women in PNG politics and a more leveled playing field for those who do take part.

Former PNG Opposition Leader (and Lowy Institute visiting fellow) Dame Carol Kidu resigned this year after 16 years as the only woman in parliament. Dame Carol was vocal and active in parliamentary debate and with the media. And while she was heard by the mass of men surrounding her she was not always listened to: her calls to improve social policy and human rights were rarely given priority despite Papua New Guinea's dire need for inclusive and resilient social policy.

Consistently poor rankings in the UNDP's Human Development Index show PNG's population suffers low life expectancy, poor education and high gender inequality. This index shows that PNG has not made headway on gender inequality since 1995. Also disturbing are the results of a women's economic opportunity index, crafted by the Economist Intelligence Unit and supported by a range of donors including the New Zealand aid program. This report looks at women's economic opportunity and advancement in 128 countries. PNG ranks dismally, bettering only Yemen, Chad and Sudan. This should be proof enough that current social and gender policies are not adequate and that urgent policy adjustments need to be made by the incoming PNG Government.

* While Loujaya has described Bart Philemon as her 'grandfather' in numerous interviews, he is actually her uncle. ‏(h/t @Tavurvur)

Photo by Flickr user Commonwealth Secretariat.