“I am a woman, hear me roar,” could have been the informal motto of the Papua New Guinea Women’s Forum -- a two-day powerhouse event organized by the U.S. Embassy in Port Moresby and the Papua New Guinean Ministry of Community Development.
Women in Papua New Guinea (PNG) face numerous challenges. For instance, gender-based violence in PNG is pervasive and high profile. More than 50 percent of PNG women have experienced sexual assault. More than 66 percent of all women are victims of domestic violence. In recent years, young women accused of witchcraft have been tortured and burned alive. Women, mothers, and children die in large numbers from preventable causes due to lack of access to primary health care. Routine discrimination and economic marginalization has historically kept women underrepresented in politics, the economy, and higher education.
Against this grim backdrop, our embassy team strived to listen and engage with women leaders over several months. Local women’s leaders designed the PNG Women’s Forum to develop a national conversation and launch a well-coordinated plan of action.
The 300 participants, who came from all walks of life and corners of the PNG to attend the Forum on March 6 and 7 went beyond the bad news headlines to focus on ways to address the many issues affecting women -- their economic empowerment, health, enabling more girls to complete their education, enlisting more men in the effort to prevent gender-based violence, the need for more women parliamentarians, and how women can use technology to improve their lives. The Forum featured breakout sessions, small group work, and summary presentations to discuss recommendations addressing each issue. The U.S. Government fielded an “all-star” team of moderators, panelists, and keynote speakers. With the help of the note-takers who recorded the observations, comments and recommendations from panelists and audience members, we are developing an outcome statement for action by the women themselves, the PNG government, and international partners. We also put together PNG’s first ever directory of women’s groups, distributed it among the participants, and uploaded it online to facilitate networking.
From my perspective, there were two major takeaways.
One. Bringing women together is powerful in itself. Working with women’s groups, we developed a range of creative funding initiatives to bring together a diverse and inclusive pool of participants, especially university students. Prime Minister Peter O’Neill rallied the crowd in his opening remarks when he said, “when you speak with one voice, you have no idea how loud you can be.” After U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary for Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Dennise Mathieu presented Dame Josephine Abaijah, the first female parliamentarian in PNG, with an International Women of Courage nomination award, the women in the audience erupted in an unexpected, emotional song tribute, giving many of us goose bumps, if not a tear or two. There is clearly an unspoken bond among women, and all we had to do was facilitate the place and time.
Two. Despite a long history of discrimination and unequal treatment, the momentum to advance the status of women and girls in the PNG is unprecedented. If the young women and men who participated in the forum are representative of the up-and-coming generation, then PNG may have a real chance at changing the destiny of half of its population. During the discussions about leadership, women identified a clear gap between generations and the absence of mentoring opportunities. Government, academic, non-governmental, and private sector participants quickly came together during the event to start a mentoring matchmaking initiative. In an environment that welcomed and encouraged their talents, it was an encouraging sign that women across the generations proved they can band together to make things happen for their future and the future of their country.
The PNG Women’s Forum was a major milestone in the momentum toward women’s empowerment and the United States will continue to foster support for this burgeoning movement.
How can we better support women leaders and empower rural women, particularly in an environment with cultural norms that foster gender inequality? I welcome your comments.
About the Author: Natalia Capel serves as Public Affairs Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea.