The Pacific is a world removed, a forgotten corner of the earth for many, however to me it is a place of such immeasurable beauty, a sing sing culture. In this environment, flying in a small plane across the country is pure joy. As the plane skids to a stop, I can see young and old people who look like colored dots as they swamp the roof of the airport and rattle the cage of the wired gates that keeps them outside. One man pulls out a ukulele and sings a sweet tune while women sell their billum bags on the dusty track leading into the airport. I feel so alive here, as if all my senses are sharpened.
I’ve travelled to Goroka to meet with a group of women in the Eastern Highlands – Julie, Lilly, Marilyn, Barbara, Maria, Monica and Anne – and we have a day to capture the state of the women’s movement in Papua New Guinea. This is also a chance for me to better understand the context and what’s causing the issues women are facing in this country as well as what they think is needed.
We start with an easy one.
The fact that polygamy is rampant in the PNG Highlands and that men, inside and outside of Parliament, don’t seem to see anything wrong with it. “You can have as many wives and mistresses as you please, if you’re a man,” Barbara says. “Men are increasingly leaving their marriages for younger women, or just taking an extra wife – they don’t see an issue with it.“ Nor do they see any issue with chasing and competing for resources and royalties from LNG (liquefied natural gas) – with men being the big winners and women and children losing out. Women are invisible around mining and extractive industries. And land belongs to the men in this country.”
Accessing markets is an issue. Getting goods to market in the right condition without refrigeration is impossible. There’s no road connection to PNG and vegetables rot without refrigeration. Julie Soso, the (female) governor of PNG, and the newly elected member to National Parliament, has now conceived a container method to ship market goods to PNG and has bought land to support produce being grown.
Women also need access to training and technological improvement of crops, on land they likely don’t own as land is passed on to the males in the family. Most of women’s work is in the informal sector and this is unpaid, underpaid and often invisible without any form of social protection.
There’s also an increasing number of women with HIV/AIDS which points to the need for comprehensive sex education and HIV/AIDS education in schools starting from ten years old. Cancer levels for women are also increasing for cervical and breast cancer. “In many rural areas, women are very shy about going to check for HIV/AIDS or for cancer,” says Maria. “Some women have died of cervical cancer, which is becoming increasingly common here, or breast cancer, because they didn’t get checked out early.” Very little sex-disaggregated data exists in the Pacific and thus the impact of many issues on women is rendered invisible without the data to demonstrate the deep and recurrent negative impacts on women.
Marijuana and alcohol abuse are major issues and there is no regulation, according to the women with whom I’m meeting. “Men smoke marijuana and drink to excess all the time and then they have no energy, they are immobilized and can’t finish school or get a job and it destroys them. They take it out on the women and beat them. We have to stop this vicious cycle,” says Marilyn.
That’s why women’s financial independence is seen as key to these women. With PNG Women in Business Foundation women pay a membership fee of 60 kina ($US30), which includes their access to a savings book. Once they save 500 kina ($US250) they receive an interest bearing loan book and then they are also entitled to a loan, usually starting at 1,000 kina ($US500). Loans are provided to individuals but they’re encouraged to meet in groups for support.
Giving women support, whether it’s economic or social, or both, is so important in this culture, especially for women living alone. In Papua New Guinea, sorcery and witchcraft are deeply ingrained in the psyche of many people in rural areas. “Widows are often branded as witches,” Lilly says. “And sometimes these women and their daughters are placed in a fire and burnt alive by young men in the community. “If you live alone you can be regarded with suspicion and once you’re branded, with ‘she’s a sorcerer’, you’re branded for life, even if you move,” says Barbara.
“It’s a spiritual thing,” says Marilyn. “Now the police are coming in to stop these practices but it’s still an issue in places like Simbu Province, Jiwaka Province and the Eastern Highlands.”
The focus in PNG on export production has encouraged support for extractive industries (mining, logging and fishing) of which the economic and social impacts have been disproportionately felt by women and girls. These industries are widening the gender gap in income, encouraging transactional sex, increased corruption and preferencing foreign investors at the expense of local people and landowners. This approach has also privileged agribusiness and neglected agriculture, including subsistence agriculture that supports 75% of the Pacific population and is primarily undertaken by women.
LNG is also driving up living costs and it’s also driving more money into the hands of men. According to Anne “this handout approach by LNG is creating an environment where people feel they deserve money (large amounts) for doing nothing, and it’s nearly always the men. These men may get a payment from LNG and go to Fiji or PNG and live it up, possibly spread HIV/AIDs and return to their families with nothing and so the women struggle to keep the family afloat.”
“Why doesn’t Exxon Mobil make a commitment to women and families, if it’s going to be in the country for the long-haul, I wondered. “What company is going to get the green light from a nearly all male Parliament, including polygamists, if Exxon says ‘we’re going to be women friendly and focused’?,” Lily responded.
And yet there are signs of hope.
The Australian Government has committed AUD$66 million to fund 1400 scholarships for Papua New Guinean midwives and nurses in order to help combat the high rate of maternal deaths in PNG and poor rural health services. Funds will be directed to PNG based medical and nursing schools to support 450 community health workers, 450 nurses and 500 midwives to be trained by 2015. Those midwives and nurses doing the training will supervise around 8,000 births a year, potentially saving many lives.
While this support is very welcome, the challenge is that these women doing the training will have to be away from their families while doing the training as the universities can only accommodate single students and not those with families. Of course, the cost of supporting family accommodation would be high although it’s often the women who have already married and have children who are the most skilled and best placed to do this training.
I ask my new friends what would be the top ten areas of investment they would advise donors to take to advance women’s and girls’ human rights in Papua New Guinea and they offer the following:
- Invest in girls’ education and adult literacy
- Build women’s cancer centers to support the growing incidence of cervical and breast cancer
- Undertake compulsory sex education and HIV/AIDS awareness training in all schools
- Invest in transport infrastructure to support women in markets to transport goods
- Improve market spaces for women including storage, toilets and safe money exchange
- Create women’s centers as safe meeting spaces for women since few such spaces exist
- Provide skills training for women including business management and financial literacy
- Get more women into Parliament by addressing corruption and Big Men Money
- Fund a National Council of Women Center to represent the united voices of women
- Invest in vocational and technical training centers that don’t have such a high entry standard or require prior experience so that we don’t lose another generation of young people, especially young women
These women also identified some issues which they said need to be addressed by Parliamentarians, including the three new women Parliamentarians who represent the hope of so many women in this country:
- Legislate a national initiative to address the high incidence of alcohol abuse and marijuana use in PNG and that builds in strong police powers of enforcement as a powerful measure to support ending violence against women
- Ban polygamy and ensure strong police powers of enforcement
- Pass the law to guarantee women 22 seats in Parliament in recognition that the elections are not an even playing field and that women will never be represented in Parliament in equal numbers with men until such temporary special measures are introduced
- implement the top ten recommendations above and ensure that every province has a vocational and technical training center
The women then start talking about the high number of orphans in the country as a result of their mothers dying of HIV/AIDS.
“I sure wish I could adopt a child,” I said to Janet Sape as I was debriefing with her.
“You can,” she said.
“No, it takes a long time as an Australian and I’m not a US resident or citizen yet nor does it seem right to take a child from their culture.”
“Are you kidding? Janet says. “That child would love to go to Australia or the US where there are so many opportunities.”
I remember what a woman said to me yesterday, “No-one is childless in this country, we look after each other’s children.” I watch a curly headed girl, maybe three years old, walking with her mother toward me. Maybe I can be a mother in the world, I think.
The little girl looks up and reaches her arms out to me – I lift her up, hold her close and hand her back to her smiling Mum.
Jane Sloane - Papua New Guinea