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Gender Equality

Being a Woman in PNG

By Sophie Purdue
Timor-Leste Programs Director
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Papua New Guinea is a dangerous place to be a woman.

The country has a sinister reputation for its endemic levels of gender-based violence (GBV) – indeed the rates of GBV are amongst the highest in the world outside of a conflict zone. It is estimated that two thirds of Papua New Guinean women and girls will experience physical or sexual violence during her lifetime.

This is a tragic reality that deserves more attention than it receives, as well as increased funding for prevention programs and support for victims.

 

Heather at Oaktree's partner organisation, Baptist Union of Papua New Guinea.

As I write this blog post, I have now been in PNG for a little over a week and during this short time I am seeing another gender narrative emerge. One that speaks of the strength and resilience of Papua New Guinean women and the solidarity between them.

In PNG, women refer to one and other as ‘sister’. “Hello sister” is their warm greeting that captures the connection women share; it resonates strongly with me as I have always firmly believed in the ~sisterhood~. When saying hello, the women also smile and wink. Over the days I came to realise that the wink is never directed at Geordie or Lachie – it is reserved only for me. The wink conveys a knowing; a shared secret; camaraderie.

Despite the patriarchal culture that still prevails in PNG, we have met so many strong female figures during our time here. We landed in Port Moresby and had two jam-packed days of external meetings, during which we met with Brenda Andrias and Mercy Masta from Pacific Women for Pacific Development. Two incredibly intelligent women, generous with both their time and knowledge. Through their work, they support and champion women’s leadership, economic empowerment and work tirelessly to address GBV.

 Oaktree meeting with the Baptist Union of Papua New Guinea.

We then travelled to Mt Hagen in the Western Highlands province to meet with our partner organisation Baptist Union of Papua New Guinea, and conduct an evaluation of the education projects Oaktree has been supporting at Kumbareta and Yangis. Throughout this process, we have been working closely with Heather – the Education Development Manager at BUPNG – who has been our translator, guide and friend over the last week. Despite being sick, Heather worked hard to make sure our evaluation activities were successful, providing calm understanding and insight.

We chatted between evaluation sessions, and Heather told me about cutting all of her hair off despite people telling her not to – to which she retorted ‘it’s my body and I’ll do what I like with it’. Feminism prevails in the Highlands! You do you Heather!

 

Sister Kay trains female health workers in the Baiyer Valley.

While visiting Kumbareta High School, we stayed with Sister Kay at her training centre. Sister Kay left her salaried nursing position to start a community health volunteers training program in response to the shockingly high number of maternal deaths she was seeing in her community. She now has nearly 100 female health workers volunteering for her, and amongst other things has trained them to safely deliver babies in remote communities throughout the Baiyer Valley. She told us that at first, the women's husbands were resistant to their participation in the program, but now the skills and service these women provide have earned them their husbands’ and their community’s respect as well as preventing numerous needless deaths. These are just a few of the inspiring women we have met.

Undoubtedly, PNG has a long way to go on the gender equality front and particularly with regard to violence against women. But in the face of this, there is a counter current of passionate Papua New Guinean women contributing to the positive development of their country that deserves greater recognition.

Strong advocacy for the protection of women in PNG must continue; but this need not diminish the parallel narrative of strength or reduce women to just ‘victims’.

Want to keep reading? Check out Religion and Development in PNG