2015 GE Australia-PNG Emerging Leaders Dialogue alumnus, Christine Melis, argues that gender inequality is a societal issue and that for Australia to have a positive influence on this problem in PNG and the Pacific it needs to be confronted at home.

Photo: Flickr/DFAT

Inequality does not discriminate between the first world and the third world. It exists in Australia as it exists in Papua New Guinea. It permeates different aspects of the public and private sphere at varying levels. Inequality is often made more complex by cultural and societal expectations and norms, language and media representations. It is both conscious and unconscious.

As a female lawyer in a male dominated profession I have always been acutely aware of the imbalances around me – in the office; in the courtroom; in advertising; in the boardroom; in the home; and in what I read and watch on TV. As a mother-to-be of a baby boy I am cognisant of the role boys and men play in building a society that respects gender and difference without biases or stereotypes.

Sometimes, when I am speaking to people about issues of inequality in Australia, I am met with the remark that women should be happy at how far they have come. My response is that inequality should never be an issue we as a society become complacent about, not for our own country, not for our neighbouring countries and not for the rest of the world.

The reality is, just when we think we are making inroads into closing the “gender gap”, we are hit with statistics which tell a forever slow and frustrating story on matters such as pay, affordable childcare, parental leave schemes, domestic violence and unequal numbers of men and women in institutions and politics where we should be demanding representation that is reflective of our community.

I thought our newest Australian of the Year, David Morrison, said it well when he said,

We hold people back in this country for the most peculiar of reasons – their gender, or the God they believe in, or the colour of their skin, or sexual orientation. It’s not how we should progress. More diverse, more inclusive workplaces encourage diversity of thinking, improve the bottom line and make organisations like an army or a bank or public service or media outlet more capable.”

Ironically, his words were reflective of the Australia Day honours list with women making up just one-third of honours recipients, the same as they have every year for almost two decades.

In recent times domestic violence has been brought to the fore as an immediate and challenging issue facing Australians. What we must understand is that there are inextricable links between entrenched barriers to gender equality, negative social perceptions of women’s status and role, and violence against women. To cure the latter we must address the former.

Beyond our borders gender inequality persists in our entire region, undermining economic and human growth. Globally one in three women and girls experience physical and sexual violence with rates as high as two in three in some Pacific countries. Close to 100% of wives in PNG’s Highlands have reported being beaten by their husbands.[1]

And the harrowing statistics go on:

  • Two-thirds of the 774 million people in the world who lack basic literacy skills are female. This proportion has remained unchanged for the last 20 years.
  • Globally, women hold an average of 22.5 per cent of parliamentary seats and in Pacific Island countries women hold an average of five per cent of seats in national parliaments. In PNG women hold three of 111 seats in Parliament.
  • Every day, approximately 800 women die from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth.
  • In every region, women perform the majority of unpaid care work and are paid only 25-50 per cent of the total hours they work.

I was grateful for the opportunity to discuss and listen to participants speak about their experiences of gender inequality in Australia and PNG at the Lowy Institute’s 2015 GE Australia-PNG Emerging Leaders Dialogue. The conversation was revelatory.

For my part, the common theme that emerged from our discussion of gender inequality in both countries was deafening. The issue is not just about women; it is about men and women and the effect inequality has on our society as a whole, including our children and economy. Inequality is a societal issue and until communities and decision makers see it as such, progress in eradicating the statistics above will not only be slow, but gains will be hollow.

Change needs to start at home. Every policy initiative, educational program and curriculum, appointment to a public institution or private boardroom and economic structure needs to take gender equality into account. What I am talking about is not just a token nod to the issue, nor a “tick-box” bureaucratic approach, but a robust and strong consideration of the impact. Let us not be afraid of words like “quotas”. If we want to seriously level the playing field in Australia, change cultural inhibitors to gender balance and be an example to other countries in our region and the world, we need a strong response to gender equality from every angle.

Empowering Women in the law in PNG:  Dame Carol Kidu, Mrs. Pauline Mogish, Director of the PNG Legal Training Institute , Counsellor Michael Sloane of the Australian High Commission, together with LTI staff and students and members of the Vic Bar and PNG-Australia Law and Justice Partnership – Transition Program (photo supplied: PNG-Australia Law and Justice Partnership – Transition Program).

As far as its aid program is concerned, the Australian Government has recognised this need for a shift in mind-set. It has made gender equality and women’s empowerment one of six priority areas for investment in our aid program.

I have been privileged to see the direct benefit of this policy in my work in PNG. Last year, I worked with the Victorian Bar and the Legal Training Institute of PNG, funded by the Australian Government through the PNG-Australia Law and Justice Partnership – Transition Program, to launch a program entitled, “Empowering Women in the Law in PNG”, aimed at mentoring, building confidence and up-skilling women trainees entering the law. For the 38 trainees, it was the first time they had had the opportunity to come together and discuss the issues and barriers they face as women entering the legal profession and in their community more broadly.

The need for, and benefit of, such initiatives in PNG is stark. That program is only one example. It not only recognises a need of Australia’s closest neighbour, but allows Australians and Papua New Guineans to learn from each other to tackle a major issue both our countries share. To give credibility to the delivery of Australian aid projects, in a place like PNG, we ourselves must challenge the way we tackle gender inequality in this country.


[1] Violence against women Melanesia and East Timor: building on global regional promising approaches, AusAid, p10, 2008, quoting study by the PNG Law Reform Commission 1992.


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Christine Melis - Lawyer and Mentor - Lowy Institute

Christine Melis

Lawyer and Mentor

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Christine Melis is a mentor for women in the law and has served in leadership roles in a number of women lawyers networks. She is an accredited teacher with the Australian Advocacy Institute and taught advocacy to law students in PNG in 2014 and developed an interest in assisting women lawyers in PNG practice their profession.