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Women, Development and Empowerment: A Pacific Feminist Perspective


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As for many other Pacific island nations, 1975 was International Women's Year and the PNG Government made available money for the women in the country to organise themselves. So, in 1975, a national women's convention was held at Port Moresby which brought together women from all over the country, most of whom were representing church women's organisations already existing in the country, and other women's clubs and organisations such as the YWCA, the Girl Guides, the Soroptimists International, the Catholic Women's Association and others. Part of the government money was used for the conference and to send a delegation to Mexico City for the 1975 UN Conference.

The main resolution of the 1975 Port Moresby convention was that the participants coming from other provinces in Papua New Guinea would go back and set up their own Provincial Councils of Women. The National Council of Women would be supported by the Provincial Councils of Women.

The women participating in the National Convention in 1975 went back to their own respective provinces and tried to organise women at the provincial level, by establishing Provincial Councils of Women. PNG has 19 provinces, plus the National Capital District, which makes a total of 20 provinces. Therefore there were supposed to be 20 provincial organisations plus the National Organisation, as an overall organisation.

As women organised themselves, there were a few practical problems that they faced. The bulk of PNG women are village women. There were difficulties conveying information or getting to women, to establish the machinery. What page 46 happened was that only women in the city centres or in towns could get together for association meetings. Provincial councils did not reach the grassroot levels, so were just superficially women's organisations. At the same time, other women's organisations, such as church women's organisations and women's clubs which were supposedly being organised, already existed. The setting up of Provincial organisations threatened these women's organisations and they felt that by joining up the national and provincial women's networks, their organisation would lose its identity. Church organisations were particularly strong and did represent women from the grassroots level up to the national level. These women's organisations of the Catholic, Anglican, United and Seventh Day Adventist churches, had women's networks in the country.

The Government Machinery

From 1975 onwards, the national government funded most of the National Council of Women's programmes, its office maintenance and other expenses. Up to 1983, the national government spent K700,000(PNG kina) on women's projects. To summarise, the National Council of Women was established mainly as a women's network to represent women of the country on the international scene and also nationally. The Council was to be a resource centre for the women of the country. It was the only channel through which financial support, or any other support from outside, could be directed. The churches had their own way of getting assistance.

The PNG government also had a eight-point plan; and the seventh point of the Plan specifically spelt out “Equal participation of women in development, politically, socially and economically”. The PNG Development Plan's seventh point was supported by financial assistance representing the Government's commitment.

At that time, the Government also had an administrative division called Youth and Women that was also involved in organising women in the country. When the national women's organisation was set up, conflict arose between this Department and the national machinery of the National Council of Women, which came into page 47 being through an Act of Parliament. Conflict between these two structures existed.

Analysis: In terms of its contribution to women, the national machinery for women started off well - it at least had some training programmes in appropriate technology, nutrition and agriculture. However, these were started and then were forgotten. Whatever funds had been given for them instead maintained the bureaucracy that had been created.

Also, from 1975 onwards, women at the provincial level had difficulties with the National Council because it was a very new organisation, which confused a lot of women. Women in the rural areas did not know or care about what was going on, and those in the main town areas who were aware, were also confused.

Black and white drawing of a group of people sitting in a circle.

Detlef Blumel, SPC

Gaining the support from the Provincial* or the National organisations was another matter. The national machinery needed support from the provinces which was a problem as already described. At that time, the concept of decentralisation from page 48 the National Government was also being established at the national political level, and the provincial governments were just being established. A lot of things were happening at one time in PNG and the women were in a worse situation, trying to get support from the provincial governments. Some provincial governments were very responsive to women's requests; others did not assist women at all.

Making it worse was the conflict between the national machinery and the Government department already in existence. This was the point where the difficulty over the National machinery for women started. The Government gave funds through the Council of Women, which was a non-government organisation. At the same time, it supported the Department for Youth, Women and Religion which also had money for women's projects. The Government was therefore giving money and support to two different bodies, for the same purpose, and all the provinces had women's activity officers who were supposed to be coordinating women's projects in the provinces.

In assessing women's understanding of development in PNG, the church women's organisations are very vocal. They have a clear concept of what women's status is, and what it can offer for women in terms of “development”. Unfortunately, the National Council of Women has never recognised church women's organisations, and that is one area where the national machinery failed. Church women's organisations were asking for recognition within the national machinery but the structure of the National Council of Women did not enable them to co-exist together.

In 1979, at the Third Women's Convention, Morobe Province withdrew from the NCW and a lot of provinces also later withdrew; the major churches also withdrew support. By 1984, the National Council of Women was just a floating organisation, it was inert. By 1985–86, it completely collapsed. The National Council of Women still exists as a name because it came into being through an Act of Parliament, and has to have a two-thirds majority to be abolished. The women are still struggling in their own organisations such as the church organisations, the YWCA, the Girl Guides, etc.

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Another weakness of the national machinery was that women were doing its programmes and other aspects of its work from the capital city, Port Moresby, and few of them would have known what was happening at the village level. The NCW resources never got down to the grassroots level - from personal experience, Morobe province, since 1975, only received K500 (kina) from the National Council of Women. Assistance was offered if women's projects followed what the NCW wanted; otherwise none was received.

Some attempt has been made to revive the national machinery. At the beginning of this year, the National Minister for Women, Youth the Religion tried to call a meeting to come up with a committee to re-organise the National Council of Women, but it never eventuated. In conclusion, it is still unclear what will happen to the National Council of Women which was set up in 1975 to help women in development in Papua New Guinea.

Funds could only be received if organisations were a member of the National Council of Women (NCW); all applications had to go through the Council. Provincial Councils or women's organisations that withdrew had to apply directly to government. In most cases, the Government made funds available.

Workshop Discussion

The conclusion on the PNG NCW was that it was never really supported by existing women's organisations in the provinces. One problem was the need to recognise church groups and work through existing organisations, because they represented a communications system that was already established that could be used.

The PNG case was considered one of the less successful experiences of a National Council of Women. Most other Pacific countries established their Councils of Women after PNG. Four countries where the Councils had run more successfully were: Tuvalu, Kiribati, Vanuatu and Solomon Islands. In Vanuatu, the staff on the page 50 Council of Women were civil servants and paid for by the Government to work for the Council of Women. One view was that a good working relationship with the government was a necessary factor if national organisations were to work successfully.

A question was asked on whether, when government funds were allocated to national organisations, training in finance management was also provided. One area where government support for a national machinery could be strengthened would be to provide training in management and financial skills for the women placed in leadership positions in the organisations. Another problem was that funds did not reach most women, especially women in the interior areas. Women and women's organisers in the remote areas therefore suffered from a lack of financial support and personnel resources, despite a national machinery and funding being available.

Black and white photograph of a woman sewing.

* Papua New Guinea has a system of Provincial Governments and a National government. Provinces have their own funds to administer.