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Old 23-02-2003, 10:21 AM
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Three Cheers for Lady Kidu's - ‘labour of love’

From Brisbane’s bayside suburbs to squalid squatter settlements in Port Moresby, Lady Carol Kidu has lived a life less ordinary, and her journey is far from over. John Wright of the Brisbane Courier-Mail reports.


THE women of Dagolata didn’t expect to be told how to stop their children dying. They thought the Australian was bringing nets to help them fish, not to sleep under.

“If the mosquito lands on the net it can’t bite you,’’ he’s telling them.
“The net will stop you getting malaria and it will stop you getting sick.
“When the mosquito touches the net it will start to die within 30 seconds. Tell everyone you know that we can stop getting sick with malaria just by sleeping under the net.’’

The faces looking up at him were impassive. Two million deaths a year worldwide, he told them. Seven hundred in their own country, Papua New Guinea.

But they were more worried about the insecticide on the nets than the disease. Extreme poverty breeds resignation, but it focuses the mind on short-term survival.

Another Australian, a woman in her 50s, has come with the tall man from Rotary to their ramshackle community of tin and tarpaulin shanties on the edge of the Coral Sea, and they seem pleased to see her.
She is moving among them like one of their own, speaking their language, cradling their infants.

Lady (Carol) Kidu, born in the Brisbane suburb of Shorncliffe, the only woman in PNG’s parliament and the country’s Social Welfare and Development Minister, is doing the rounds of her electorate.

”They have no piped water and no electricity, but the biggest worry for these people is that they have no way of paying school fees,’’ she says.
“And it costs just 40 kina ($A20) to put a child through Year 1 or 2.

“About 80 per cent of people in my electorate (Moresby South) are what I’d call fairly poor, but about 30 per cent are what might be called poverty-stricken. They are finding it hard to feed their families. That’s not a life for people.’’

The life Carol Millwater chose when she married a young Papua New Guinean called Buri Kidu — later Sir Buri Kidu, chief justice of PNG — has taken her on an extraordinary journey.

Her husband died nine years ago, and against the advice of some in her adopted family in Port Moresby, she entered Parliament in 1997 and was re-elected last year as the country’s only female MP.

Now she has a job no one else wants.

On almost every social and economic indicator, the vast majority of Papua New Guinea’s 5.2 million people are among the world’s most disadvantaged.

According to a recent Asian Development Bank assessment, 37 per cent of Papua New Guineans live in poverty and under profound economic and social inequities.

They include limited access in rural areas to health and education and other essential services. Low life expectancy, high infant mortality, the world’s highest maternal death rate (1000 mothers a year die in childbirth), poor adult literacy and low enrolment at all levels of education, low income, high unemployment, squalid urban living conditions and rampant crime are a way of life in PNG.

The country ranks last in the Pacific region on the United Nations Development Program’s human development and human poverty indices.

Dagolata, where Rotary has been helping distribute mosquito nets this month, is just one visible embodiment of those problems in Port Moresby, a city blighted by problems accentuated by ongoing urban drift.
But Lady Kidu, as perhaps the only government minister qualified or willing to tackle the issues, is spearheading moves to break the stranglehold that poverty has on the people of her electorate and elsewhere.

In a system that lacks a formal social welfare net, she has initiated and is testing a community-based approach to solving PNG’s humanitarian problems.

If it is successful and becomes widely implemented, it could have a profound effect on a nation that so far has been unable to find answers.
“The formal system can’t cater for the needs (of the poor),’’ she says.

“And given the topography and remoteness of much of the the country, the Government is irrelevant to many people. We have to empower people through their communities.

”A welfare approach will not work because the country cannot afford it, and because it undermines all of the traditional ethos that everyone works and those unable to work are cared for by the community. We want to reinforce that community responsibility.’’

Lady Kidu favours the introduction of compulsory education and eventually free education — at least at primary level — with community learning centres, staffed by volunteers and supported by non-government organisations, providing an alternative to the formal education system.

Pilot programs in her electorate incorporate or call for the introduction of community development committees, learning centres and business development and other initiatives.

The plan is bold, even optimistic given the amount of money she has to work with.

Her department’s budget of K3.3 million (about $A1.5 million) pays wages but can barely develop let alone support the kind of initiatives that could be crucial for any community-based strategy to succeed.
But what she lacks in money she makes up for in commitment. She travels her electorate constantly, getting around in a battered Mitsubishi ute, meeting the people, listening to their problems and offering advice.

She works tirelessly at this level and again as a government minister. The people like her, an Australian they call “Lady K’’ and “mamu’’. She’s a woman of the people.

At Vada Vada, a Moresby squatter settlement with 600 sheds its people call houses, she tells them they’re a community, not a settlement, a term in PNG which has all the wrong connotations.

The community has a meeting place, a police post, a village court system and a magistrate’s house that is little more than a tin hut. Its stove is a crude, sawdust-fuelled open fire in the dust.

The community has existed since 1967, but it took 30 years to get electric streetlights. The roads have never been more than dirt tracks. Three generations of people are living there, most of them in deep poverty.

Vada Vada isn’t at the end of the earth. It is about 5km from the centre of Port Moresby, the nearest foreign capital to Australia.

“You feel powerless when you come face to face with this every day,’’ Lady Kidu says.

“It’s a big problem, but it’s not that big that I can’t make an impression.
“I believe that if I’m lucky enough to get five years in the job, I can start to make an impression if the public service machinery takes up what I’m trying to do. But it will take a long, long time without a substantial input into it.”


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