Papua New Guinea and Fiji have many similarities in terms of politics, economic activities, and culture. The educational systems of both countries are also similar. Despite these similarities which are also captured in the policies that shape their educational systems, Fiji is more successful in implementing its gender equality policies in education compared to Papua New Guinea. This literature analyses the factors that Fiji gains advantages from in being more successful in contrast to Papua New Guinea. The first section of this review analyses the two countries’ cultures that shape their people’s views towards girls’ education which is believed to be one of the significant factors that contribute to the implementation of gender equality polices in education. The second section explains how the increase in women’s political participation can boost girls’ access and retention rates in basic education. It is believed that this might be one of the reasons why Fiji has advantages in promoting gender equality in education. Finally, the literature outlines what lessons Papua New Guinea can learn from Fiji in improving girls’ access and retention rates in its basic educational system.
Overview of Papua New Guinea and Fiji
Papua New Guinea and Fiji are two Melanesian states in the South Pacific region which have similar economies and political systems and share similar cultures. Despite those similarities, Fiji tends to perform better in achieving gender equality in education than Papua New Guinea. This suggests there are some lessons that Papua New Guinea can learn from Fiji, in providing its girls with improved access to and better retention rates in basic education. Because of the many similarities between these two countries’ social, economic and political systems, it could be just a slight difference in their education systems, as suggested by Rose (1991) that causes Fiji to achieve better outcomes in gender equality in education than Papua New Guinea (Kishore Singh 2015).
In the educational context, both countries have similar curriculums and education structures. The educational systems of both countries receive almost equal funding from the state and aid assistance from Australia, towards achieving ‘Universal Basic Education’ (Fiji Ministry of Education 2015; Papua New Guinea Department of Education 2009). However, attitudes of Papua New Guineans, that are built upon patriarchal beliefs and values, are considered an obstacle to Papua New Guinea’s progress in achieving gender equality in education. Papua New Guinea is a male dominated society, simply a patriarchal society (Chris 2016), which is often referred to as a ‘Melanesian Bigman’ culture, being male-led patronage system that gains resources within or outside the community, earning men their big men status (Milli 2013, p. 6). The main ways for men to accumulate wealth are through their sisters, using bride-prices as a means for gaining wealth from other tribesmen or using their wives to accumulate wealth by looking after pigs which are highly valued in Melanesian societies. In this context, women are considered inferior and regarded as income earning commodities, or as labour units, used to enhance the bigman status of family adult males. Because the bigman system is, by nature, competitive among adult males, women who cannot put up with their husband’s or family’s expectations are often treated harshly or excluded from society. This traditional mentality, which still prevails in today’s Papua New Guinean society, has an undermining effect on the value of girls and women, restricting access to education. This culture is very strong in the highlands region of Papua New Guinea which has the highest gender difference gap in the county’s education system, compared to the coastal areas where this political system is either weak or not practised (Bellew 2010) This patriarchal culture which undermines the status of women and has dominated for thousands of years and is deeply rooted in most Papua New Guineans in today’s generation and it significantly affects the country’s educational system.
Papua New Guinea and Fiji both practise Melanesian culture, however, Fiji’s culture is without the big men element of Papua New Guinea’s culture. Fiji’s culture observes a simple but well-structured chieftain system (Lindstrom 1981). Unlike Papua New Guinea which has long been isolated from other cultural influences and developed its own complex bigman system, Fiji has traditionally had frequent contact with the other Pacific influences and has adopted significant characteristics of Polynesian cultures including its chieftain system (Burley 2013; Davidson 1977). In fact, scholars (e.g., Birks 1973; Pawley, Green 1973) believe Fiji was originally inhabited by Polynesians who experienced Melanesian migrants from the west resulting in a diffusion of cultures with Fiji eventually evolving from a Polynesian society to a Melanesian society (Davidson 1977). Before experiencing Melanesian contact, the Polynesian inhabitants of Fiji practised Polynesian culture and even today, Polynesian influences are still strong in Fiji's chieftain system of governance (Taufe'ulungaki 1986). In traditional Polynesian societies women have high political status compared to women in Melanesian societies (Gunso 1987). In Samoa and Tonga, Fiji’s closest Polynesian neighbours, matriarchy was often practised where women would have chieftain status (p.1). This suggests the probability of Polynesians in Fiji practising matriarchy before the diffusion of Melanesian culture throughout the Fijian islands. The practise of matriarchy and the traditional high value of women in Polynesian societies have had a significant effect on Fiji’s culture as reported by Taufe'ulungaki (1986) and could be an underlying reason why Fiji has advantages over Papua New Guinea in girls achieving high access and retention rates in Fiji’s basic education system. This acknowledges the cultural perception of girls and women that has been constructed over the years and is deeply rooted in the minds of today’s generation and supports the high probability of determining how the society supports girls in accessing education and finding their place in the community. This can be true because, according to UNESCO (2015), both Samoa and Tonga, countries which traditionally value women as does Fiji, have high access and retention rates in their basic education, for girls, like Fiji’s access and retention rates. The comfortable progress towards achieving gender equality in education by such countries as Samoa, Tonga and Fiji is in direct contrast with the achievements of Papua New Guinea and other Melanesian states that practise bigman systems.
A comparative analysis of regions within Papua New Guinea shows that areas where the bigmen culture is most strongly practised have made very little progress in achieving gender equality in education. Geissinger (1997) notes that Island provinces in Papua New Guinea where women have high status are doing better than provinces that have high rates of male dominance (p. 4290). These Island societies were settled by Austronesian speakers whose cultures value women in ways similar to Fiji’s Melanesian culture (Sand 2002, p. 286). In areas settled by non-Austronesians, i.e. highlands of Papua New Guinea which have very strong ‘bigmen’ systems, tend to have low female performance rates. The same low result in gender access and retention in education in the highlands of Papua New Guinea can be found in other non-Austronesian settlements in the western Pacific, such as in Vanuatu which also has a strong bigmen culture (p.286). In this analysis, it is believed that the Melanesian patriarchy (bigmen) culture is one of the significant hindering factors affecting Papua New Guinea’s efforts towards achieving gender equality in education.
These patriarchy beliefs and values can also affect the political and educational institutions of both countries, by indirectly influencing their plans and policies, and ways in which their curricula are implemented. For example, in Papua New Guinea, even though the country’s ‘philosophy of education’ is the foundation of its education system, opportunities for students are still gender-influenced. Institutions are advised to train girls in traditional feminine-related roles and males in masculine roles, to fit them back into Papua New Guinea’s patriarchy society (Geisinger 1997). These gendered educational practices are accepted and considered an important link between Papua New Guinea’s constitution and the aim towards achieving gender equality in education. However, such gendered bias feeds the perception of girls being inferior and often discourages community support in helping girls attain a basic education. Unlike Papua New Guinea, Fiji’s constitution directly recognises women and girls and promotes gender equality in education. Singh (2016) points out that article 31 of Fiji’s constitution enshrines the right to education (p. 6). It states that every person has the right to early childhood education, primary and secondary education and it is the responsibility of the state to use all the resources available to assist the child (p.6). The constitution is seen as the foundation document which supersedes all other plans, policies and procedures and sets the pace for the implementation of all gender equality plans and policies in Fiji. In addition, gender equality plans and policies are more likely to be achieved in Fiji, than in Papua New Guinea, because Fiji’s parliament has more women articulating the feminist voice, which enforces gender equality ideas, than Papua New Guinea’s parliament.
There is a pattern among Pacific countries, like Fiji, where high numbers of women in parliament correspond with high rates of girls’ accessing basic education. For example, Samoa and Tonga which have high rates of women in parliament, like Fiji, also have high rates of gender equality in education (Kerryn Baker 2018; UNESCO 2015, pp. 32 - 36). In contrast, countries such as the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu which have proportionately fewer women than men in parliament, like Papua New Guinea, are still struggling to achieve gender equality in education (p. 32 -36). In this context, it is women’s low political participation associated with patriarchy that contributes to Papua New Guinea’s low rate of progress in gender equality in education being achieved. There are several scholars (e.g. Kaiku 2011; Yao & You,2018) and organisations (e.g. Ukraine Women’s Fund 2011) that share the same view that problems associated with poverty, health and education are not properly resolved because male politicians in parliaments of male dominated countries pursue their own interests. Even though there are women working in the public services, the lack of support, interest and coordination from the hierarchy has resulted in a lack of basic educational opportunities being obtained by girls.
Even though there some scholars like Ferreira and Gyourko (2014) who dispute this idea, claiming that that there are no differences between the performances and influences of males and females in policy matters, the trend in the pacific region shows otherwise. The UNESCO (2015a; 2015b) report shows that there is positive correlation between women’s representation in parliament and girls’ access to education. Some might argue that it is the access to education that increases women’s presence in parliament which may be true. However, in the pacific region, it is the increased number of women in politics that boosts girls’ access and retention rates in basic education. This attitude was reflected by a sole women parliamentarian in Papua New Guinea between 1997 and 2012 who was very vocal about women’s rights and recognition (Kaiku 2011, p.3). However, without the support of the majority of parliamentary colleagues, most of whom were obviously male, not much could be achieved. It is believed that if there were more women in parliament able to back her up, a bill introducing ‘reserved seats for women in parliament’ and improvements to social services such as equal educational opportunities for girls would have successfully passed. However, because she was the sole women parliamentarian, the bill was voted out by her male colleagues.
In Fiji, outcomes achieved in politics and girls’ education have been much more positive. Chattier (2015) credited the increase in girl’s education in Fiji to the increased feminist voice of women and their political participation. The feminist voice advocacy successfully assisted women secure parliamentary seats. The increased number of women in parliament use their mandated authority to assist women’s and girls’ access to education. This has resulted in Fiji having almost equal percentages of girls (97.5%) and boys (97.6%) enrolled in basic education in 2000 (Singh 2016). The increased number of females in schools has had a spiral effect which, in turn, saw an increase in women’s participation in the politics. Current statistics for the Pacific region show Fiji has the highest number of women representatives in politics (Baker 2019) and education (Singh 2015) positioning it as the top performing Pacific country nation in terms of women in politics and education.
Lessons Papua New Guinea can Learn
In the context of this discussion, there are no secrets in Fiji’s success. Fiji’s culture values women, not as commodities but as a people who can contribute to society, according them a status almost equal to that of men (Sand 2002). For Papua New Guinea to be successful, its cultural view’s and support towards women and girls need to change, enabling them to attain basic education just like boys. It is believed that, only by valuing females, their status and importance in the community will result in girls being assisted in accessing and achieving a basic education.
Secondly, there needs to be more female inclusion in decision-making. Traditionally, Papua New Guinea has a very strong, male dominated society (Sand 2002) and its characteristics are still prevalent today. If that society changed its views and included more women in decision-making, especially in political arenas at national levels, then the voices of women will be heard. Not only will their voices be heard, but implemented plans and policies will contain perspectives that best suits women. Papua New Guinea’s similar culture, economy, and political activities to those of Fiji should make it easy for that country to achieve equal gender equality rates in education. However, Papua New Guinea can achieve that only if it respects and treats women as equally important members of society, and by allowing women’s voices to be represented at the national levels.
Papua New Guinea and Fiji share many similar characteristics. However, Fiji’s chieftain culture is not as male dominant as Papua New Guinea’s bigman culture. Male dominance in Papua New Guinea holds disadvantages for girls accessing basic education, whereas girls in Fiji find it easy to access basic education because in Fijian society their status is respected in the community. This has contributed significantly towards a rapid increase in Fiji’s rate in achieving gender equality in education. In addition, there is a pattern among countries, like Fiji, where higher numbers of women in Parliament correspond with high rates of girls’ accessing basic education. Chattier (2015) credited the increase in girl’s education in Fiji to the increase of a feminist voice and political participation. Therefore, if Papua New Guinea wants to achieve a gender equality rate similar to that of Fiji, it must change its cultural views towards women’s status in the community and allow more women to be involved in decision-making especially at the national levels.
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