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.
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