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Information and Women in Papua New Guinea

By:  Lady Carol Kidu, MP
Paper presented at 1997 Waigani Seminar

As the traffic slowed, I glanced at the small commotion nearby - an armed policeman was chasing a lady selling betel nut.  As he pushed her, her betel nut scattered and some bystanders grabbed them.  The rest were confiscated by the policeman. She shouted in defiance but to no effect. The traffic moved on and so did I - but my heart stayed with the woman trapped in a frustrating cycle that denied her access to her potential.  This paper gives me an opportunity to express a few thoughts on an aspect of a topic very dear to my heart - empowerment through information, knowledge and skills.

Before I proceed, I wish to acknowledge Sr Tess Flaherty of Goroka University who provided me with research materials at very short notice.  She also provided me with excepts from her book "The Women's Voice in Education" which is presently being published by the Melanesian Institute.   In general, I will not name individual references but they are acknowledged in the written paper.

My topic is Information and Women.  I have chosen to centre my paper around my belief that education (in its broadest sense) and literacy are prerequisites for information and are also prerequisites for women's development and national development.

The importance of women's education and access to information in the developing world cannot and must not be ignored.  Education and access to information gives advantages to the women themselves, and through them, for their families and society. It is a major means of freeing women from poverty and oppression and raising socioeconomic standards.  Education enhances the woman's role as primary caregiver in the home where knowledge and promotion of health and nutrition, and an understanding of the importance of literacy and education for the next generation are essential (Watson, 1988:158).   Education improves a woman's role in the workforce and women with some education are able to earn a living to support themselves and their family (Kelly, 1987b:484).   The results of a study of ninety-six countries from 1960 to 1985 (Benavot, 1992:25) showed clearly the economic advantage of education for girls; increasing their numbers at the primary level of education leads to greater long-term economic prosperity than that of boys at the same level.

According to Turner (1990:87) education is "universally perceived as a major vehicle for women's advancement, and in PNG it has been educated women who have been its staunchest advocates." Gillett (1990:41) emphasised that the level of a mother's education was "one of the most important factors affecting the health of herself and her children". Kamikamica (1985: 75) has pointed out the importance of education for women in the Pacific, where illiteracy and inequality in education are widespread.

Yet despite the fact that reseach has shown the positive effects of women's education on their families and society, women's education, particularly in many developing societies has been neglected.

It is the women in developing countries who suffer most from lack of education (Watson, 1988:95) and access to information.   They are the ones who are most likely, in a world of cash economy, to work without pay at home or in subsistence agriculture, or if they have wage employment, to be engaged in the most lowly paid occupations.  In addition, the condition of widespread illiteracy which is greater for women (Stromquist, 1990c:568) often makes them unaware of their rights.

Kelly (1984:95) drawing on the findings of Deble's (1980) world-wide research, reported that governments in developing nations rarely showed concern for women's education.  Most governments, despite United Nations efforts and the International Decade for Women (1975 - 1985) seemed unwilling to set and implement policies (Smock, 1981:114; Kellyl984:88) and in cases where official policies to improve women's education have been made, they are not very effective.

Papua New Guinea is a good example.   Our Women's Policy was launched in 1990 with ceremony, rejoicing and hand-shaking - a job well done!  But now seven years later, is the policy being effectively implemented?   Has the situation for women changed as a result of the policy?  That is the question we should be asking.  it will take time I know but it will also take determined effort.

Women in Papua New Guinea, like their sisters in other developing countries are the ones who have tended to suffer most from illiteracy, poverty and low status.

Illiteracy is greatest among our female population with 60% female illiteracy compared with 50% male illiteracy (NSO 1994:131).   It i& estimated that in our more remote rural areas, illiteracy rates are over 85%.   It is a worrying scenario because literacy should be seen first and foremost as the people's pathway to developmental knowledge in childcare, nutrition, health, housing, agriculture, environment and so on. Literacy is a skill that makes an individual more fully human and it must be acknowledged as a basic human right.

In 1990 the National Government initiated the Literacy and Awareness Programme supported by the National Literacy and Awareness Secretariat. The Literacy and Awareness Programme represents a policy shift from defining literacy as reading and writing skills, to viewing literacy as a process of 'awareness' building. It is an important policy step in recognising the importance of information.

By 1996, there were a total of 393 adult programmes in eleven provinces and NCD, run by over 496 teachers and reaching a total of 8,385 adult learners, the majority of whom were women. However, this represents only 0.5% of the non-literate population aged 10 years and over.  Information on the remaining 8 provinces was not available. (UNICEF, 1996:103).

Virtually all programmes are community based and supported by local churches and various NGOS.   Significant support in the form of training, management and materials production has come from the Summer Institute of Linguistics and from PNG Trust.

Programme evaluations have found that activities initiated within communities have much higher and effective levels of participation of the targeted beneficiaries than those initiated from outside (Aihi & Bopp, 1993:30).  However, most of the community initiated literacy programmes have not shifted to the awareness approach nor become linked with ongoing human and community development activities. Most problems are to do with lack of effective training.   Teachers do not understand the methods and are not able to produce their own materials.  They tend to teach the skill as an end in itself rather than teaching the skill as a tool to provide information to improve basic living standards.

The problem is not a policy problem.  It is a problem of lack of consistent political commitment to ensure that the Literacy and Awareness Programme can function efficiently as a coordinating body to assist the churches and NGO's that trojan on valiantly but often in isolation.

The need is to become more focussed.   The government must fulfill its duty

to co-ordinate the Literacy Awareness Programme. We need to identify the target groups that have networks to reach maximum numbers in minimum time and then fast-track the training of literacy and awareness teachers from within those groups.   The existing women's church and Council networks are obvious target groups.

We need to also identify appropriate and relevant information to form the basis of awareness through literacy programmes land access funds and the expertise to prepare the necessary materials.  For example, women's literacy should be achieved by using materials with information on nutrition, health, hygiene, income generation etc.   Things will not just happen, we have to make them happen.  I believe that women are the ones who want it to happen so we should focus on women first then move very rapidly to the marginalised youth population.

I realise that I am talking to myself when I talk of political will and it makes me nervous because the task is not easy as it is only one of many tasks to face.  I dream of developing Community Education for Life-long Learning to reach the forgotten masses with literacy and numeracy being a basis of the programmes.  If interested people can help make it happen with me in Moresby South, vacancies exist - unpaid of course!

Okay let's leave my dreams and get back to reality.   I said earlier that women in Papua New Guinea, like their sisters in other developing countries are the ones who have tended to suffer most from illiteracy, poverty and--low status.

Poverty is a word that our governments have tended to avoid.  The Poverty Alleviation Programme had its name changed to Community Targeted Programme because some politicians and bureaucrats disliked the word poverty.

I agree that poverty is relative and can be judged by many different factors but we must be willing to admit that poverty does exist in PNG. When a woman sees her children go to sleep still hungry, when a woman cannot get medicine to treat scabies and other sores, when a woman has to beg others to pay school fees for her children - then we have to admit that poverty does exist in PNG.

Poverty was not a social problem in traditional times but is now a growing concern, not only in PNG but also in neighbouring Pacific islands.  In PNG 'the revenue from developments in the rural resources sectorÖÖ has brought little development to the majority of the population (over 80%) who are rural based and illiterate...... and Women form the majority of the disadvantaged population' (South Pacific Commission, 1995:78).

The Situational Analysis on Children, Women and Families in PNG launched early this year points out that "In most Papua New Guinean societies, traditionally women are the 'producers' and men the 'transactors'.   Women produced the economic wealth while men negotiated the distribution of the wealth (except in matrilineal groups).  In contemporary PNG society however, it seems that women are assuming greater economic responsibility without any increase in status, while male dominance is becoming more entrenched." (UNICEF1996:12)

In simple words, development has made things worse not better for many women - they have to work harder in a situation that is less clearly defined and less supportive.

We all know that many women in the urban situation do a hard day's work to earn a few kina to help feed their family. Then they also do a hard night's work of household and wantok duties. They resiliently survive the stress of urban life and many also face domestic violence or other forms of abuse.

Women's work load in rural PNG has also increased because of the 'intensification of the gardening system, the contribution of women to cash cropping, male outmigration, an increasing number of children in schools unable to help, and larger family sizes due to higher survival rates.' (Heywood, Buttfield and Anian, 1986).  Women have a disproportionately onerous role in the maintainence and improvement of living standards in the Pacific and they receive only a relatively small share of the benefits" (Hughes, 1985:1)

As a consequence of increasing poverty, life expectancy for women has dropped in the last decade (UNICEF, 1996:40), infant and child mortality rates have increased (UNICEF, 1996:72) and the maternal mortality rate from complications in pregnancy and childbirth in PNG is one of the highest in the world (UNICEF, 1996: 64).   The statistics reveal the low social and economic status of women and their lack of access to health care information and services to meet their needs.

Women need access to information.   It is the only way that we can reverse these worrying statistical trends. World history has shown that the best way to improve quality of life is through education. Literacy teachers and extension workers must become partners in teaching functional knowledge and skills to empower women to have greater control of their own lives and the welfare of their families.

Access to information and income should help stop increasing poverty in our societies. I say 'should' because information increases awareness and potential but does not necessarily change attitudes and priorities. For example, if increased income is spent on paying larger brideprices or purchasing alcohol, there may be no measurable change in living standards or poverty levels.

This brings me to the sensitive area of culture, values, social status, attitudes etc. It cannot be disputed that Papua New Guinean women continue to be disadvantaged by traditional attitudes and customs that are not consistent with an egalitarian contemporary society.  I think it would be correct to say that the majority of women in PNG are not economically, socially or culturally free agents.   Male dominance over all aspects of the female's life is still common and indeed still accepted by women as the norm in many instances.

To change attitudes and customs is a delicate process because the changes need to occur without the destruction of the total social fabric. Both men and women, or more realistically male and female children, need to be targetted in programmes designed to modify attitudes and customs. Programmes to sensitise males and females to gender equity issues need

to be used widely, through schools, print and electronic media, grassroots theatre etc.   The UNFPA role model programme and the Health Department billboards around the city are addressing the issue but far more needs to be done.

The programmes need to strike a balance between respecting traditional values while at the same time inviting learners to analyse and modify their changing cultural environment. It is easier said than done, especially when you are living in it.  That is why some educated Papua New Guinean women understandably choose to opt out of it. The pressures become too great.

I felt the pressures for 30 years but I was in a different situation. As Buri's wife, I publicly lived the role of a Motuan wife - to do otherwise in the village would have shamed him and the family.  But if I didn't follow some norms or fulfill a perceived duty I would be excused. "Madi ia be nao hahine" A Papua New Guinean woman would not be allowed such luxury and would be severely criticised.   It is very difficult for an educated PNG woman to find the balance between her traditional role and her modern aspirations.  It is like living a schizophrenic life - one personality for the work environment and a different personality for the home environment.

Perhaps one of the most significant catalysts for change are the women themselves who have overcome gender stereotypes and negative cultural attitudes to develop their talents and contribute to the community in ways that were traditionally reserved for men.   Women who have made this step become examples to other women who want to cross the barrier. Dr Flaherty's study has also brought into focus the significant role t at men can play as fathers, husbands and mentors.   By their encouragement, support and guidance they empower capable women to venture into fields of endeavour and into decision-making roles.

I have spoken mainly of the great need that exists in PNG for women to have access to information as recipients of information.   In conclusion, I would like to say a few words about the important role of women as the givers of information.

We all know the saying "Educate a man and you educate an individual but educate a woman and you educate the nation".  It should be a basic maxim for development. Women are the carers and nuturers of the next generation - our nation's future. If we care about our nation's future we must educate our women.

Information for women is a national need.

The link between the urgent need for women in terms of opportunities for health services, education and employment, and the nation's need for women as equal partners in economic development and food production is beyond doubt.  Providing more opportunities for women is necessary for the very survival of our nation.

And yet the weight of history still continues to burden the women and there is a long way to go before girls and women are granted equal participation in the formal education system and easy access to information for the majority who have missed out on the formal system. Women continue to be burdened with a disproportionate workload which allows little time for them to even dream of, let alone participate in information and awareness programmes.

A partnership between the government, NGOs and the women's networks will have the potential to reach far more women than the various groups working in isolation.  The complexity of the problem indicates the need for a combined and collaborative approach from the many groups, institutions and individuals with the power to make a difference.

We must make a difference so that we can do more than just dream of a better life for all. We must make our dreams become realities.

Information and Women

By:  Lady Carol Kidu, Member of Parliament of Papua New Guinea
e-mail author:  c/o Dr. John Evans
Papua New Guinea © 2000

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