A fairy-tale come true

A royal spring wedding is coming. The frenzy has just started and articles about Prince Harry and Meghan Markle have inundated the internet even before their engagement was officially announced. I am one among millions of fans who eagerly read articles that came my way. Whilst many anticipate the wedding day with much gusto, excited to have a glimpse of the bridal gown and all, I am more excited about what Meghan –an advocate of many good things—can do as a princess.

I am a recent Suits fan. I’ve only watched the series few months ago. I’ve read articles about Prince Harry dating a Meghan Markle but didn’t care one bit until I realised the lady he was dating was Rachel Zane of Suits! I was all eyes since then. Being a law student, Rachel Zane inspired me in several ways which made the person behind the character interesting for me too so I started reading about Meghan and found that she is more amazing than Rachel Zane. My politics is aligned with hers – at least from what I’ve read thus far.

She is a feminist, humanitarian advocate and actively voices out issues facing the marginalized communities. Her experiences growing up as a mixed-race woman, having a black mother, and living in a white supremacist society obviously helped shape her consciousness as an advocate but it was her choice to use her standing in society to raise awareness and take action against social issues that made me admire her. I’d like to believe that her advocacy will not change once she becomes a princess but rather, the new role will provide her with better opportunities to continue her advocacy.

On a side note, the upcoming royal wedding undeniably made me nostalgic of the time I spent in London. I was volunteering with Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) for three months in Newham, London in 2008. The experience though short opened my eyes to a different reality. I grew up thinking that rich countries like the UK don’t have to face problems experienced by third-world countries like the Philippines. This notion changed when I saw a beggar sleeping on the street in winter. And I’ve seen the same in Sweden too.

We were also told to not stay at the park late because some African volunteers in another community were assaulted by a ‘white gang’ of young people. I’ve met a refugee from Afghanistan who barely spoke English and was all by himself in London. We may have struggled with language but I did understand that he was missing his family so much.

We had one activity where we were to identify social problems in the UK and our British counterparts shared that neighbours barely talk or know each other; a stark contrast in the Philippines where everybody knows everybody even those from different towns. There was a need to get people to talk and inculcate that sense of community – at least in London. There were various youth centres available in Newham alone that catered to the needs of young people but not many youth came. Instead, you’d read articles about them getting into a fight or involved with drugs.

Every nation face problems unique to its society and culture but in the grand scheme of things, nations have more similarities than differences. Globalization and the increasing technological advances rapidly blur borders. Problems faced by one country likewise pose a set of complex problems to its neighbours and even those at a distance geographically. Now more than ever, there is a need to catalyse global citizenship and encourage cooperation among advocates. And this is the reason I am thrilled that Meghan Markle is going to enter the royal institution –the British monarchy at that. I hope she will become a unifying figure in our continuous battle for a better world. Her love life may be one we can call a fairy-tale come true –a modern Cinderella—but I hope that her story won’t end at the wedding like most fairy tales do but rather open a new chapter of a princess working hard to save lives and the Mother Earth.

Take a bow with grace

Women in India“It feels painful right now, but I can take a bow with grace.”

At the height of a political tension, I got a very emotional email from a young woman MP. I admire her because she chose to lose and be consistent with what she stands for instead of turning herself into an opportunist who jumps off to where she can find shield and greener pasture. A woman who explicitly speaks about contentious topics easily becomes vulnerable particularly in a male dominated society.

Someone told me I am married to my work and that I talk about it anywhere even on Facebook. He expressed his annoyance on some of my posts where I rant about how conventional media is shaping women’s mindset, making them feel that being inferior and martyr is the way to show their love for a man is true.

Is it okay to say I understand his irritation because he is a man? I am not sure if saying so doesn’t make me stereotypical. What I know for sure is that the depth at which men view women as subordinates is too deep I don’t think I will ever witness the end of women’s fight for basic human rights ending in my lifetime. Awareness alone is not enough to change a man –or a woman’s—long held beliefs of gender roles and cultural norms which are the main culprit of gender violence. It requires a man’s recognition that something is wrong in our society and make the effort to confront his cemented mindset of gender roles; I understand this is not easy. It also stems from a woman’s recognition of her value and rights, and learn to stand up for what she deserves; I understand this is not easy too.

It feels odd why I have to explain to him why I post so much about feminism –I could have just said that men like you who prefer to keep a blind eye is the reason why I do what I do — but I did explain.

A colleague once asked me, “How do we really end violence against women?” I can imagine thousands of answers sprouting in my head like mushrooms that suddenly transformed into a web where one is interlinked to the other. I chose a simple answer, “It must start in the family.”

Children conceive the pillars of their consciousness at home. Unfortunately the case is often where young boys see how their father dominates in the family and young girls see how their mother accepts their inferior role. Then they go to school and read textbooks filled with gender biases and immerse themselves in a society that reaffirms this set up.

Gender violence and inequality have several facets and faces and I understand the importance of tailoring our subject on what people can relate. I have diverse friends on Facebook of which many of them are empowered women. Still, I post if only to keep the idea floating. Who knows it can provoke someone into evaluating his/her preconceived notions around these issues?

I know a lot of women who lost their confidence after a breakup. They start to question their value thinking it is not enough for a man to continue loving her. They carry this feeling of inadequacy without realizing it manifests in how they view themselves, how they relate to others, how they work and in general how they live. Some women are so weak the only way they restore their self-affirmation is to get the man back by pleasing him. Submissiveness is never a genuine act of love because if we cannot see our own worth, we can never learn how to truly value other’s worth.

How women handle a relationship is carried over marriage and what she imparts to her children. I cannot be so idealistic as to think I can change the world. But I am hoping to extend my message in whatever ways I can that our value lies within us, not on how we are treated by a man. We should not allow men’s intimidation –be it in a relationship, in school, at work– to hinder us from reaching our fullest potential. As long as we allow a man to affect us and paralyze our morale, our gender will always be looked upon as weak and incapacitated.

Women India

I believe in the ripple effect and I understand that the principal individuals we can influence are those around us. I cannot inculcate any insights to women –or men– I could not reach out. I don’t know if my writings make any difference although my mom once told me someone who is not even my Facebook friend but who gets to read some of my public posts said it inspired her. After all, this is what matters most right? Making a difference on how one person feels about herself/himself is more than enough.

I may be married to my work but this is only because what I do is not just a means to earn a living, it has become my calling, my vocation. A colleague told me that I have this personality appeal that makes people to want to talk to me, which perhaps she noticed when a lot of our colleagues would comfortably email me. Somehow I managed to bestow myself with the license to be a certified confidante for longer than I can remember. In fact our school principal before has warned me that if I continue to be like this – a sponge – I will face the problem of not being able to deal with my own emotional turmoil. She was right.

Despite my own emotional struggles and burnout, I rise each day and keep going. I always remind myself that my adversities are nothing more than the suffering faced by other women; those women whose tongue were cut and electrified in Iraq during Saddam Hussein’s time; women who experienced genital mutilation in Africa; women who were raped, trafficked; the cases of violence are enormous. I rise because it takes one woman to inspire another. And like what the woman parliamentarian had said, we must take each bow with grace.

Up close and personal with Dame Carol Kidu

It is a great honour for me to be able to write about a woman I deeply admire, Dame Carol Kidu.

Dame Carol Kidu is the former Minister for Community Development and Member of Parliament of Papua New Guinea. She was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in January 2005. In February 2009, she was made a knight of the Légion d’honneur by France, “for her dedication to helping women, young girls, children, the physically and mentally impaired and her commitment to fighting discrimination“. She was the first citizen of Papua New Guinea ever to receive this award. She accepted the award on behalf of the people of Papua New Guinea. In 2007, the magazine Islands Business named her “Pacific Person of the Year”, in recognition of her efforts towards poverty alleviation, against domestic violence and child abuse, against HIV and AIDS and in favour of women’s empowerment. She was also the recipient of the PNG International Woman of Courage Award from the Secretary of State of the United States of America in 2007. Dame Carol has also received honorary doctorates from Vudal University (Madang, PNG), University of Queensland (Australia) and the University of Papua New Guinea in recognition of her services to the people of Papua New Guinea.

Below is the article I wrote for our newsletter as a tribute to a woman whose passion and drive made significant contributions not just in PNG but also in the region.

Up close and personal with Dame Carol Kidu
A tribute to a remarkable woman

The political landscape of Asia and the Pacific in the past decade had seen very few women parliamentarians making a difference and still thriving against the canopy of male dominance. Women’s participation in decision-making and involvement in politics remain a challenge in the region where most countries are still tide in the traditional notion of patriarchal society influenced by both religion and culture.

One of them is Dame Carol Kidu, a remarkable woman who sailed against the tides for 15 years of dedicated service, both as a parliamentarian and Minister, to improve the welfare and development of the people in her country particularly the children, women and marginalized groups.

Dame Carol Kidu gave up a comfortable Australian life to live in Papua New Guinea with her late husband Sir Buri Kidu, PNG’s first Indigenous Chief Justice. The political environment in PNG had not been good particularly for women.

The political and cultural challenges did not stop Dame Kidu from running for a seat in parliament in 1997 where she won and became a representative for Moresby South constituency. Her decision was motivated by her husband’s sudden death. “I can’t be him and I can’t be as good as him but maybe I can do something because with his death I felt that the people were robbed of a very good leader.” Her decision was also fueled by anger from seeing social injustices in her country.

Most of the challenges she faced as an MP were at the electorate level because it is a poor urban electorate where people don’t have gardens to feed them. “In the end it becomes draining emotionally and financially. And because I was very accessible quite often I had people in my office who are destitute, who literally had no food to feed their children. It can get very depressing because we don’t have any system to help them in the urban area. There’s no social security of any sort so there’s no way you can tell them to go to this office and you’ll be able to get some help. I found that very difficult because you feel so powerless.

A lot of women commended her for being strong and powerful but for her she hasn’t felt so powerless in her life than when she was a politician. “I’d seen injustice. I’d seen some innocent youth in my electorate being shot dead by police without the chance of a trial. You would feel so powerless because you wouldn’t be able to help their parents. You don’t have the money to help them to go to court and help them bring justice to their child.” Despite having been seen as strong by fellow women, often people attribute her failures from being a woman. “When a man doesn’t achieve something they do not say oh he’s only a man.

When asked about her strengths she said, “I’m a very determined person if I believe in what I’m doing. Sheer determination and never ever give up type of determination.” Being the wife of a highly respected man gave her the advantage over other women and helped her win the first election but she had to work hard to stay there.

Dame Kidu has achieved a lot in the last 15 years. She is more proud of the invisible things she has left behind in her constituency. She started an NGO called Ginigoada Business Development Foundation – Ginigoada means stand up strong – which gives income-generating  skills and basic business training to marginalized youth and women particularly those who had no education at all, and looks at job placements for them after their training. “I also introduced early childhood training and introducing pre-schools to communities, community-based pre-schools and parenting training. For me building people is far more significant than building buildings.

At the national level she led many policy and legislative reforms. Under the umbrella of  an Integrated Community Development policy, she led the formulation of the community-based policy for disability, early childhood care and development policy when she was a Minister. She also reviewed the women’s policy to become gender policy and did the informal economy policy to help the empowerment of people who are vending on the streets.

In terms of legislation, she introduced major reforms to the criminal code in  areas of sexual offenses including  rape (making the offence of rape  gender neutral and removing the marital defence for rape) and new laws on various forms of child sexual exploitation. The package of legislation also amended the evidence act to make it not so difficult to bring a case to court because it was almost impossible to win a rape case as the evidence requirements were too difficult for PNG. Later on she passed the Informal Economy Development and Control Act and developed an Informal Economy policy.  She also passed  the Lukautim Pikinini Act or Child Protection Act which replaced the old colonial Child Welfare Act 1967.

Dame Kidu said the ICPD agenda is very important in PNG since one of the most pressing issues in the country is related to sexual and reproductive health. “Most of our politicians don’t know anything about ICPD and that’s one of my aims now, to work with UNFPA to help raise awareness.” The country faces issues on unsafe abortions, unmet needs for family planning, young teenage pregnancies, sex workers and abused sex workers, homosexual criminalisation. “We’ve seen serious abuse of sex workers, some of whom are just doing sex work because they don’t have any alternative to feed their children or maybe there are alternatives but they don’t see them. People may say they can do something else but unless the person herself can see there’s opportunity it’s very hard.

Seeing abuse against the homosexual community, Dame Kidu worked on issues concerning the criminalization of homosexual  behaviours in her last term for which she received much criticism. “If people criticized me I’m not ashamed of what I’ve done because I believe that everyone has rights no matter what their sexual orientation as long as it is adult, consensual behaviours.  The same as I always supported the prisoners from my electorate. They were serving their time in prison but to me they were still my constituents so every Christmas I would make sure that they had something in prison. Sometimes they would say no, give parcels of food to our family instead. I tend to look at the marginalized who are often the majority of people. The poor are the majority.

She sponsored a major piece of legislation called the “Equality and Participation Bill” trying to get reserved seats for women in parliament. It did not succeed so it was not implemented in the recent 2012 election. With strong support from women’s groups she lobbied for women’s political participation which brought the issue to a high public profile which it had never been before. Their relentless lobbying in the last five years brought three women in parliament in the country’s recent election.

Dame Kidu sees the election of three women in parliament as a sign that there is a change in attitude coming. “It’s really critical now that we don’t just say we’ve done it. It’s really critical to say that we’ve got the first step on the ladder and now we need to  focus on supporting those women. We’ve got to make sure that we keep strengthening them so they don’t just get 5 years and then will be thrown out. We really got to support them to stay there and we’ve got to keep working with political parties, keep working on the idea of affirmative action to try to get more women to join them.

As a Minister, she felt she had the opportunity to influence policy and legislation. “I had to put my full self in the Ministerial portfolio.” Now that she has retired, she feels she can contribute more by becoming part of the lobbying force outside to keep pushing on issues such as justice and human rights, sexual and reproductive and health laws. She hopes to be used regionally not in permanent jobs but being an advocate and resource person. She is also in the process of setting up a small consulting company which will be called CK Consultants that will be based in and focused on PNG. She will be working at community level and giving strategic advice about community engagement.

Despite what Dame Carol Kidu has achieved locally, nationally and internationally she remains humble and simple. “I’m just an ordinary lady. I really am. I struggle like everyone else.” Her message to the three women MPs would be, “Know that it is extremely hard work particularly for women. Being a politician is not easy. It’s a very difficult task in PNG. You have unrealistic  expectations from your constituency. People expect you to deliver far more than you can possibly  deliver. Be humble and  remember that we’re there to work with people not for people. Keep working hard, be humble and move forward”. And her message to other women MPs, “never ever give up.

Indeed, we need more women leaders like Dame Carol Kidu in the region who are bold in facing difficult challenges and tasks and who will put the interest of the poor and marginalized as a priority.

A digital copy of the newsletter can be accessed here.