Letter from Papua New Guinea #2

One cassowary, two sheep, 24 pigs, 1,600 kina worth of vegetables, 10,000 kina of gas and 10,000 kina in cash is the worth of a woman.

That’s the bride price my driver, Andrew, paid for his wife, Jennifer, when they met and married in Mount Hagen in the Papua New Guinea Highlands.

“As a couple, we received up to 50% of that payment back in some form,” Andrew explained.  My parents-in-law gave us back 3 pigs, 800 kina of vegetables, especially bananas which we didn’t have, cooking utensils, bedding and 3,000 kina in cash.  We needed this as we were very, very poor.  I had to worked for years in my garden to save for the bride price.”

This is the reality of a man marrying a woman in one of the rural areas of the Papua New Guinea.  Old traditions remain strong.

Around 40% of PNG’s population lives on less than US$1 per day, with PNG ranking 121 out of 135 countries on the United Nations Human Poverty Index, which measures a country’s standard of living.  On the UN Human Development Index, which measures literacy, life expectancy and standard of living, PNG ranks 148 out of 182 countries.

PNG has the poorest state of health in the Pacific region, especially in rural areas where health services are deteriorating and difficult to access at best, or at worst closed down. Access to healthcare in more remote areas can be severely restricted, where patients, health workers and supply deliveries must negotiate raging rivers, muddy roads and rugged mountains.

“PNG has the second highest rate of maternal mortality in the world after Afghanistan,” Scholla Kakas, President of the National Council of Women, told me today.  The churches are the ones that have focused on local training for village attendants but there’s still so few who have been trained.  It would help if we had a training facility for midwives but, even then, there are issues of transport and access, especially in the remote locations. Meanwhile, the women are dying.”

“If a woman has pregnancy complications in a remote area then she may have to walk or be carried by her family on a stretcher to the nearest local clinic, and that may be days away. I remember coming across a heavily pregnant woman who had traveled five days on foot to get help and her water broke during that journey and the baby was coming out of her as she tried to walk.”

“We haven’t made much progress on the Millennium Development Goals and we’ve only got three years to go to the deadline.”

In many developed countries, the average ratio is one doctor per 400 people while in Papua New Guinea it is one doctor per 7,900 people. Most doctors, nurses and midwives doctors are located in the capital, Port Moresby.

In some of the more remote regions of the country there are no midwives, doctors or nurses, leaving up to 66,000 people with no access to medical care.  As a result of these and other factors, communicable diseases are responsible for 50% of deaths in PNG.  These include pneumonia, malaria, tuberculosis, meningitis and, increasingly, HIV/AIDS.

  • If you’re a woman living in Papua New Guinea then your life expectancy is 30% lower than if you were born in the US or Australia and you have a 1 in 5 chance of dying before the age of 40.
  • If you’re a pregnant woman you have a much greater risk of dying during childbirth or from pregnancy related causes, with a maternal mortality rate 118 times that of Australia’s.
  • Babies born in PNG are 10 times more likely than in the US or Australia to die by the age of one and 12 times more likely to die by the age of five.
  • Papua New Guinea accounts for more than 90% of the deaths of children under five in the Pacific region.

Global Fund for Women’s Grantee partners have been responding with their own creative initiatives to some of these issues.  For instance, in 2007 a group of single mothers formed the Waugla Single Mother’s Association (WSMA) in Simbu Province. The group’s mission is to address the issues of a marginalized, but rapidly growing, community of single mothers from aged 17-40 and it conducts training on food preservation and security as well as birth control practices. Members of the group have also collectively pooled their resources to help each member construct their own homes.

Another group, The Women’s Rural Advance Program (WRAP) is a women’s group located in the Highlands region of Papua New Guinea. Established in 1988 by women of the Ramui tribe, the membership of the organization includes 18 women’s groups over 900 women from different communities. WRAP trains rural women to become leaders and to foster the future leadership of women and girls across Papua New Guinea and to increase women’s economic autonomy and advocacy around health and HIV/AIDS.

I want to know how these women and others here in PNG supported by the Global Fund for Women, together with our formal and informal advisors, are dealing with these realities.  What do they believe needs to be done and how we can best support them to accelerate and amplify their work and advocacy?

So, I’m heading to Goroka this week to meet with a group of our grantees who’ll be traveling from their homes in different parts of the country in order to meet with me.  Their stories, as solution builders, will feature in my blog post this week.

As I was headed back to my accommodation today, I watched a gorgeous girl peep out the window of a bus, held tight by her Mum, who waved at me. Across from my hotel, street artists lined up their brilliantly painted scenes of everyday life in PNG for the 99 percenters here. One painting was of people in a local bus looking up at westerners in a kind of Biggles plane contraption in the sky.

“We are singing in our bus”, the woman artist explained to me. “We’re poor but we have our families and our songs and our feet on the ground.

We feel life. You foreigners are in another world with your heads in the clouds looking down on us all the time.”

She smiled and looked at me. “Two hundred kina, you buy?”


Jane Sloane – Papua New Guinea


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