What my work in Papua New Guinea taught me about gender equality (Guest blog – SDG 5: Gender Equality)

This week’s article is written by Erin Wallis, a social innovation consultant in Melbourne, Australia.

For the last two years, I have been incredibly lucky to work with social entrepreneurs across Papua New Guinea (PNG), learning their business models and hearing their stories.  One of the benefits to this work is it has been an inspiring and humbling experience that has helped me more deeply understand the complexity of gender equality.

The Gender Equality Sustainable Development Goal outlines the following:

5.1 End all forms of discrimination against all women and girls everywhere

5.2 Eliminate all forms of violence against all women and girls in the public and private spheres, including trafficking and sexual and other types of exploitation

5.3 Eliminate all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation

5.4 Recognize and value unpaid care and domestic work through the provision of public services, infrastructure and social protection policies and the promotion of shared responsibility within the household and the family as nationally appropriate

5.5 Ensure women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic and public life

5.6 Ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights as agreed in accordance with the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development and the Beijing Platform for Action and the outcome documents of their review conferences

5.A Undertake reforms to give women equal rights to economic resources, as well as access to ownership and control over land and other forms of property, financial services, inheritance and natural resources, in accordance with national laws

5.B Enhance the use of enabling technology, in particular information and communications technology, to promote the empowerment of women

5.C Adopt and strengthen sound policies and enforceable legislation for the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls at all levels

This is a HUGE amount of ground that I will not be able to cover in one article… However I will share some of the ways that working in two very different contexts (Australia and PNG) has shaped my understanding of the complexity of gender equality. While every project I have worked on in PNG has taught me something about gender equality, there are three stories in particular that stick out as profound.

Women in the workplace

The very first project I was assigned to when I started at The Difference Incubator (TDi) was to work with a social enterprise based in PNG. Their vision was to support all businesses to maximise their economic potential via gender equality.  Talk about deep end – new job, in a new industry, in a new country and context. What I didn’t realise until I was there, was that workplace gender equality in PNG is also a pretty ‘in the deep end’ subject.

My Australian context of workplace gender equality were things like addressing gender bias, fulfilling gender quotas and developing confidence in women.  In PNG, gender equality in the workplace is more about stopping sexual harassment, encouraging women to get or continue jobs in the private sector and take on leadership positions without fear of being physically abused. 

Gender based violence in PNG

Gender-based violence is one of the most significant issues to continually impact PNG.  The UN states that 35% of women globally experience gender-based violence in their lifetime. In PNG, that figure is more like 70% of women experiencing gender-based violence.  In speaking with the workplaces that this social enterprise was working with, I heard a similar story over and over again.  Women took up jobs because they felt they needed to, to provide for their families.  Their husbands were not working, so if they didn’t – how would their family survive?  The catch is that in taking on formal work while their husbands didn’t, they were disrupting the family roles/structure. This meant that gender-based violence became a way to ‘restore’ that perceived power structure. 

The social enterprise we worked with took a very integrated approach to solving this issue with initiatives like bringing in the husbands to the workplace to explain why it was important that women work. They also established on-site creches so that the perceived woman’s role of looking after the children was not neglected.  Further, they created an incredible initiative where all the corporations who were members of this social enterprise, pooled funds to buy up vacant property around the city and created safe houses for the women who still experienced family violence, despite these initiatives. These may not seem like ground-breaking strides for feminism, but the point is they work. These social entrepreneurs responded to the needs of the community, whilst upholding gender equality in their context.

Bilum- The art of weaving

The second PNG project where I learnt a valuable lesson in gender equality was last year at the Goroka Bilum Festival.  Bilum describes a weaving technique and style of woven bag, traditional to PNG.  For women of PNG, the art of weaving bilum has always been a way of life. Bilum weaving has been passed down from one generation to the next for thousands of years.

Weaving bilum- ever design has a story to tell.

Each bilum has its own design and story to tell.  For many women, bilum also provides a way of making income. Part of the Bilum Festival project involved interviewing women who wove and sold their bags to understand how the craft was able to provide for the women and their families.  Below, I share an exert from the one of the interviews (I have changed the name of the weaver to protect her identity).

The Bilum Festival

Rebecca’s sister, Wendy, learnt weaving from their grandmother and taught Rebecca.  Rebecca tells the story that her sister would yank her wrists into place if her technique was not correct, so she said she didn’t want to learn from Wendy anymore. 

Rebecca is the sole income earner for the family, providing for two of her four children and their children.  Between her and Wendy, they also support their siblings’ families who live in their home village, Okapa. As a Pastor, Rebecca also gives a portion of her income to mission work (in particular, women).

Rebecca described that she weaves bilum in any spare moment she has – early in the morning before her chores start, during the day in between chores, and well into the evening after her family has gone to bed.  Sometimes, when there’s a big order, she has a group of girls to twist the thread for her so she can focus on the weaving.

The money that Rebecca makes from selling her bilums funds other income-earning activities such on-selling bilums from remote villages at the Goroka markets, money-lending, a ‘table market’ (a canteen from in front of her house where she on sells products from the supermarket), and selling pigs. Unlike many of the other weavers, Rebecca also has a small amount in savings, K1000 ($500).  She has a bank account, but her husband manages it because of her low-level of literacy (she didn’t go through school).

When I asked her what bilum means for her, Rebecca shared:

“I am very happy for the work [weaving bilum]. I love bilum.  I want to beat everyone at it.  Before bilum, I was a ‘rubbish’ woman, but bilum has given me money and status.  People can see a big change in my life, and they either see my success and want to join in or resent it.”

Through the 2019 Bilum Festival, the weavers collectively sold K61,099 (around $30,000) worth of bilum. Individual weavers earned as much as K3000 ($1500) for their bags. For context, without this festival or international interest in bilum, these women would be making an average of K60/ fortnight ($30) selling locally.  The founder of the festival shared:

“The weavers are still smiling [one week on].  The first thing they did was go down to the market and buy the best potatoes and broccoli, carrying them proudly in their street bag.  This is special for the bilum mamas.  Everyone would’ve been looking at them saying ‘what is she doing with the best potatoes and broccoli?’  It was because of the Bilum Festival that they were able to afford that, and that makes me happy.”

Bringing cottage industries to the formal economy

All of these creative industry jobs are unrecognised in the formal economy.  They provide jobs and employment however they are unacknowledged and unrecognised. Huge amounts of money is not being tracked, highly valuable skills not being valued or utilised to their fullest potential.

My boss at TDi, Annie Smits, wrote an article earlier this year about addressing the need to recognise ‘cottage industries’ in the formal economy, especially in the context of valuing the economic power and contribution of women.

Further, my continued work in PNG provided showed the growing importance of creative and cultural industries.  Another recent project highlighted the importance of creative industries. This includes bilum weaving, but also art, design, dressmaking, jewellery-making. They provide women with jobs where they are able to provide for not only their own family but their extended family as well.  Again, a story I keep hearing is of the matriarch of the family running her creative industries business. She is the sole income provider for the family, which can mean supporting up to 30 people. 

These jobs are providing a way for women to fulfil their expected roles in the home (and as result not risk domestic violence) while also providing for their family.  So, rather than trying to change things, why not find a way to better recognise them in the economy.  There was a great article on Development Policy recently, which highlighted the importance of acknowledging the role of women in our economic recovery to COVID-19.

I think the final thing to acknowledge is the resilience of Papua New Guinean women.   They have an unparalleled ability to keep moving forward, despite circumstances most us will never have to face.  And while this deserves acknowledgement and celebration, it should not mean that it is “accepted”.  At TDi we work closely with Criterion Institute who do incredibly powerful and nuanced work in gender equity.  They have helped us understand that while resilience can be a powerful tool to grow, we also need to acknowledge that it comes at a cost.  

Inspiring the next generation (and each other)

I think perhaps one of the most powerful roles we can all play in addressing gender equality, and one that all of us have the power to do, is inspire the next generation and each other through what we fight for, how we fight for it, how we lead by example.  The final story from PNG that I wanted to share, is Betty’s.  I met Betty through a program that TDi ran late last year.  I feel so blessed to have met Betty and had the precious task of writing her story.  It is a story that will stay with me forever.  You can read it here

Betty is an inspirational woman and entrepreneur who has overcome incredible odds.  She is passionate about inspiring and providing opportunities for young women now.  She is inspirational not only in her actions but also in her intent.  The story was published in the two major national newspapers in PNG.  It will stay with me forever, because it inspires me to do good, and want good for other women.


To finish, I want to share one of my favourite ideas from Reni Eddo-Lodge.  In her book I’ve Stopped Talking to White People About Race, she wrote:

“Feminism is not about equality, and certainly not about silently slipping into a world of work created by and for men. Feminism, at its best, is a movement that works to liberate all people who have been economically, socially, and culturally marginalised by an ideological system that has been designed for them to fail. That means disabled people, black people, trans people, women and non-binary people, LGB people and working-class people. The idea of campaigning for equality must be complicated if we are to untangle the situation we’re in. Feminism will have won when we have ended poverty. It will have won when women are no longer expected to work two jobs (the care and emotional labour for their families as well as their day jobs) by default.”

I love what Reni captures about achieving holistic equality.  We need to address intersectionality and equity first.  Not just gender, not just race, not just ability, not any one dimension of how you identify… it is only in addressing all these things through creating equitable opportunities, and at the same time, do we achieve equality.

One thought on “What my work in Papua New Guinea taught me about gender equality (Guest blog – SDG 5: Gender Equality)

  1. Finding worth in women’s work, or inspiring and encouraging women’s capabilities, is the groundwork towards equality. Congratulations on your efforts for assisting those gains. Ultimately, the children of those women will reap the benefits – well nourished to grow, learn and appreciate strong, capable women who make significant and valuable contributions to their health and potential.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s