Where were you on International Women's Day last year?
I was in Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea, invited by the Business and Professional Women's Club (BPW) to speak to Papua New Guineans and expatriates.
What I learned has stayed with me, reinforced by meeting women living and working in PNG.
I flew in the day before IWD. The flight was early, and whilst waiting for my meeter and greeter (it is inadvisable to venture outside the airport alone for safety reasons) struck up a conversation with a woman from Bougainville. She told me how lucky and proud she was to be a Bougainville woman, explaining that traditional Bougainville society, as opposed to the rest of PNG, is matrilineal: the women's line determines kinship and the inheritance of land rights. With her words ringing in my ears, my welcomers arrived and presented me with a traditional gift of shell necklaces.
On the way to the hotel, they told me more about the local and national issues. Violence in Port Moresby is extreme. Most expats live in compounds surrounded by barbed wire, hotels and many businesses have armed guards. One company will not permit its workers to walk anywhere, and are required to be driven, even to go to lunch, next door to their workplace.
Nationally, the lot of women is dreadful. Women in PNG face severe domestic violence problems and high rape rates (most unreported), poverty and limited access to education. I spoke with Kim, an ex AFP officer and now a Development Practitioner in Family, Women and Child Rights. She told me about domestic violence: noses, ears and cheeks lopped off with machetes are typical injuries. Two thirds of the women in a Law Reform Commission survey in the 1980s had been a victim of physical assault by a male partner. In one study by the Institute of Medical Research, 60 per cent of the participating men admitted to having pack-raped a woman at some time. Amnesty International estimates that 85 per cent of communities lack access to formal justice systems.
In 2006, there were estimated to be over 46,000 people infected with HIV in PNG with girls aged 15 to 24 four times more likely to be HIV positive than their male peers.
Women have been unable to get seats in government. There is only one female Member of Parliament, Dame Carol Kidu. There is currently an affirmative action proposal gaining momentum to enable the creation of 22 reserved seats for women in the National Parliament. If the PNG Parliament passes the enabling legislation, it will be the first Pacific country to introduce special measures for women to be represented in National Parliament.
The country still clings to tribal lines, and traditional roles are very strong, so it is difficult for women to break through.
The key to emancipation is education. Girls in PNG usually stand behind boys in the queue for education. If a family has scarce resources, it is the boy who receives the education. BPW offers scholarships to young women to complete or further their education. The breakfast at which I spoke was a fundraiser attended by 320 people, men and women, and was sponsored by AusAID and local businesses. It raised a significant sum to underwrite more scholarships.
I met Mabata, one of BPW's scholarship recipients. She studied Early Childhood Development and then founded Honeybee kindergarten at her own home. It is entirely self-funded, with 150 students. She proudly showed me pictures of her little graduates in their blue gowns and mortarboards, and of their brightly painted one-room library hut. Then she told me they had no books. No books? Vivien from BPW and I went to a second hand shop and bought an armful of books to be passed on to her, but that is nothing compared to what is needed.
Mabata's story is typical of those lucky enough to be selected: she has taken the investment in her future and returned it to PNG society many times over.
The experience has stayed with me: a land of so much hardship and yet so much potential. It is hard to believe Port Moresby is a mere one hour 50 minute flight from Brisbane.
Published in UWA News, 21 March 2011