How Women Fare in the Millennium Development Goals in Papua New Guinea

The Passionist Congregation is represented at the UN as an NGO (Non-Government Organisation) so as to have some input and work with other NGO’s for justice in the world, given we are spread through many developing countries throughout the world. The Australian Province for our congregation includes Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea. We were recently asked by our representative at the UN to report back on the plight of women in terms of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) for our region. In response, Mr. Paul Harriknen, a lawyer and parishioner of our parish in Boroko, PNG, wrote a personal reflection on the situation as he sees it in that country. I have included it here, with his permission, as our article for October.


Papua New Guinea (PNG) is a fast developing country in many respects. People face tremendous challenges in catching up with technology, industry, literacy, and basically modern knowhow and way of life. There are confrontations and tensions between traditional culture and modernism, religious faith and secularism, old generation and the new generation, in many aspects of the life of the people.

Any analysis and commentary on development issues should thus be cognisant of the situation of a fast developing country coming out of a largely traditional culture into the modern world as people experience transition in social and economic life (subsistence to cash), marriage and family, religion and faith, etc.

This is only my personal bird’s eye view of the situation of the status of women and girls in PNG. Any detailed and official reports can be googled from relevant websites on PNG country reports.

Some major challenges for women and girls in PNG are connected with resource development and environment, health, employment, economic conditions, and the male centred paradigm in institutions and society.


PNG economy is developing on the back of its raw material exports in minerals, oil and gas, forestry, fisheries and a slowly growing agricultural sector. The development of natural resources has its social and environmental consequences. All, if not most of the mining activities in PNG are open cut operations with huge social and environmental destruction. There have already been problems with the Panguna Mine on Bougainville and the Ok Tedi Mine in the Western Province. The Panguna mine caused a civil war resulting in the loss of more than 15,000 lives. In many respects, families and people’s lives have been displaced and the natural environment lost for ever. A huge liquefied natural gas (LNG) project is being developed in the Hela and Southern Highlands provinces promising huge cash flow when it commences production and export in 2014/15. A Chinese cobalt project in Madang Province resulted in a court case when its operations threatened the sea waters with pollution. A new Solwara 1 deep sea-bed mining operation is being developed in the Bismark sea between New Ireland province, New Britain and the mainland PNG causing major environmental concerns.

While there are promises of massive cash flow from the natural resources and a perceived economic boom, the reality presents a paradox. The modern economy is largely foreign and PNG as a country and people are caught in the web of a modern competitive economy controlled by the obvious mega powers of the G7s, G20s etc., who dictate the World Bank, IMF, WTO, in the so-called free trade and free market. PNG is at the cross roads or has already passed the junction and heading to cash economy. It is in transition and lost in confusion, tension and anxiety. The country is experiencing poverty, unemployment, poor working conditions with low wages which cannot afford the rising costs of good and services, violence, break down of marriages and family units, law and order problems, corruption in businesses and governments, lack of social services resulting in poor health, education and road infrastructure, and a growing generation of young people facing an uncertain future.


The UN World Health Organization (WHO) reports[1] show:

  • % of rural population                                        –                       87
  • Life expectancy at birth (2007)                       –                       60.7
  • Under 5 mortality rate per 1,000 (2006        –                       74.4
  • Infant mortality rate (infant deaths per 1,000 live births                                           (2006 demographic health survey)                 –                       57
  • Maternal mortality ratio per 100,000 live births   –            733
  • Total expenditure on health as % Of GDP (2004)   –            3.2
  • General Government expenditure (2006       –                       7.3
  • Human Development Index Rank                                                                                           out of 182 countries (2009)                              –                       148
  • % of women with no education                                                                                    compared to 34.9% for men                              –                       39.6
  • % of population with access to                                                                                          improved drinking water (2006)                     –                       40

While there are opportunities in areas of governance and adequate funding to improve the health and social life of the people the WHO report identifies major challenges still in maternal mortality, gender based violence and gender inequality, increased health 420_south-420x0security risks from emerging diseases, MDR TB and other communicable diseases, eg., cholera, generalised HIV epidemic affecting about 1% of the population, inadequate access to safe water and sanitation for large part of the population, high level fragmentation in the institutional and fiscal relationships between national, provincial and lower levels of government, inadequate human resources in particular midwives and medical doctors in rural areas and an ageing work force, and a dysfunctional medical supply system. It is also noticeable that women and girls are the main victims of any corrupt, failed and dysfunctional system. PNG is ranked 156 out of 187 countries in the human development index.[2]


Out of the seven million (7 million) population in PNG, the Catholic Church membership is 30%, Lutheran 18%, United Church 11%, Seventh Day Adventist 10.5%. Much of the social services are provided by Churches. The Catholic Church is a major non-government provider of services with about 177 health facilities (5 rural hospitals, 152 health centres, 40 aid posts), 116 HIV/AIDS facilities in 19 Dioceses providing for over five million people, and 2,915 schools (elementary, primary, secondary, tertiary, technical and vocational and university) providing for about 643,787 students.[3]

The Catholic Church since its arrival in PNG about 165 years ago in 1848 has been a major partner in the social and spiritual development of the people. The Churches (including other protestant churches) have acted as surrogate governments to the people with many basic social services.



One major impact for the cause of women in PNG has been the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The women folk have used the CEDAW as its launch pad to challenge any form of negative discrimination against women and girls. PNG approved the CEDAW on 12 January 1995. The September 1995 UN fourth conference on the status of women and children in Beijing was a highpoint for the cause of women in PNG. They sent a vocal group with their country 283221_380519592029912_2060495517_nreport to the forum where they also gained the support of the international women’s movements such as the Beijing Platform for Action. Since then the campaign for women’s cause and women’s rights grew in strength and intensity against discrimination in education, employment, leadership, politics, Church etc. They pushed for reforms in mindsets, attitudes, cultural practices, policies, laws, and formal social and institutional structures in Government, private sector industries and businesses, and Churches.


On 15 May 2013 a women driven social movement, dubbed the “National Haus Krai” (local pidgin language for ‘National Day of Mourning’), in a nationwide protest, presented a call for action petition to Prime Minister Peter O’Neill and his Government to seriously address the damning violence against women and girls in the country. They see the criminal justice system not protecting them equally when the corrupt system could allow male perpetrators of rape and other heinous crimes to easily get away from prosecution and punishment. The system is slack and there is no certainty in the enforcement of the rule of law. The Government instead passed amendments to enforce death penalty against offenders of serious crimes but this is seen as a ploy by the government to avoid the core issues of corruption and incompetence with governance.


Since 2009 the women pushed for 22 reserved seats in the National Parliament to bring in women’s voice to the male dominated Parliament. A proposed Equality and Participation Bill has not been debated and passed by Parliament. At the moment there are only three women in the National Parliament. The traditional mindset of men against women is still strong.


The Catholic Women’s Association (CWA) have been meeting recently to make representation to the Bishops and the leadership of the Catholic Church at the 2013 General Assembly from 5th to the 11th of November 2013 in Madang Province. Among the many issues they intend to raise are their concerns on – male dominance in Church and societal organizational structures, violence, poverty, literacy, drugs and alcohol, poor health services, tension between traditional and modern cultures, poor business opportunities, gender inequality, lack of government services, unemployment, polygamy and bigamy, same-sex marriage, prostitution and sex workers, and the declining sacramental and pastoral life of the Church. They want to see more action to empower women to become active development partners in the life of the Church and society. They want recognition in the formal structures of the Church and Society. The Church structure and decision making is still hierarchical and Pre-Vatical II, causing women to feel not involved in decision making while they do much of the sacramental and pastoral work in dioceses and parish communities.

The Church and Government structures need to be reformed to allow women in to fully participate in the life of the nation.


Goal 1: Eradicate Extreme Poverty and Hunger.

With the combine impact of environmental degradation resulting in high social costs and the rising costs of goods and services, struggle to make ends meet will be extreme. Women continue to carry the burden of family under poor and challenging conditions. More and more men and boys turn to alcohol and drugs leaving women and girls to do paid and subsistence jobs under pressing conditions. Women are made to work as slaves. Even some young girls are joining the fray of wanton social lifestyle causing mother’s many physical and emotional worries. There should be no poverty in PNG with all the land and resources rooted with people. Sheer laziness, alcohol and drugs and modern lifestyle have also contributed to the erosion of good traditional values of hard work and productivity.

Goal 2: Achieve universal primary education.

Progress is slow. Many women and girls, especially in the rural village areas, are expected to do traditional women’s roles of working in the garden, having babies and looking after the family. ‘It is alright for girls not to go to school,’ seems to be the mentality. The Government introduced compulsory primary and secondary education in 2013 but this requires a lot better funding to make it work. It is not clear how much impact and benefit it will have for girls. Cultural attitudes must change along with free universal education. There is a slowly growing middle class PNG women in both the private and public sector as a result of good education. The campaign slogan for the education for women is, ‘when you educate a woman, you educate the family and the nation.’

Goal 3:            Promote gender equality and empower women.

The struggle for gender equality continues in PNG. Educated women are slowly making their way into high paid jobs and positions in both the public and private sector. The Church also has some Commissions headed by qualified women, although women still don’t feel involved in decision making but feel, rather, that they are merely used by male dominated institutions as implementers of the social, sacramental and pastoral programs. There are only three women in the National Parliament. The push for 22 reserved seats has been ignored by a largely men dominated House. Few women though have won seats in the local level government election in 2013. The traditional cultural mindset and attitude against women is still strong in PNG.

Goal 4: Reduce child mortality

Child mortality is still a major challenge in PNG. According to the 2006 demographic health survey infant mortality rate (infant deaths per 1,000 live births is 57.[4] An inadequate public and private health system, compounded with lack of sufficient funding and a dysfunctional medical supply system, no safe water and sanitation, high maternal mortality, high preventable diseases, inadequate support with midwives and doctors especially in rural areas, the problems seem insurmountable.

Goal 5: Improve maternal health.

Maternal mortality ration per 100,000 live births is 733.[5] Population growth is high and mothers continue to suffer from the demands of having more children at risk to their own lives compounded with inadequate family planning and health services. Women’s health is also at risk from the demands of domestic work and other paid or income generating jobs for the sustenance of their families.

Goal 6: Combat HIV/AIDS, Malaria and other diseases.

PNG is prone to many tropical, lifestyle and communicable diseases.[6] Malaria and HIV/AIDS are common place. The Catholic Church has out of its 116 centres throughout the country recorded 789 positive cases from the 47,743 tests conducted.[7] Gender based violence of rape and other sexual abuses against women and girls remain a challenge.

Goal 7: Ensure environmental sustainability.

This is one of the major challenges. With increase in mining and other natural resource extractive industries, environmental pollution and degradation with the impacts of social costs to the lives of ordinary people are obvious. The irony of so much money made from these natural resources, with little or none to improve the lives of people in terms of health, education, roads and bridges, is absolute abysmal. There is no improvement in safe drinking water and sanitation, even in some towns and cities. There is massive corruption by people involved in donor (such as from European Union) funded projects for water and sanitation – projects that are never completed. Again women and girls become the main victims. They have to collect water, cook and laundry. Most times they have to provide for the men, boys and family and usually they sacrifice their own lives doing that.

Goal 8: Establish global partnership for development.

If education for both men and women is not adequately provided, women will continue to fall behind in technical knowhow, financial systems, trading and other business opportunities. Education continues to be key to empowering women and girls to reach 14their full potential as equal development partners. Education of men is also important to develop different perspectives in them about the equal dignity and rights of women as partners in life and development. Global partnerships, alliance and solidarity such as the Beijing Platform for Action are also important for the cause of women in PNG.


Further detailed reports can also be accessed from the CEDAW Shadow Report 2010 by the National Council of Women of PNG on the Status of Women in PNG and the Autonomous Region of Bougainville, which still represents the current status of women and girls in PNG.[8]

[1] World Health Organisation, Papua New Guinea Country cooperation Strategy focus: (accessed 29 September 2013)

[3] Source: Catholic Bishops Conference PNGSI, (Port Moresby, 2012)

[4] See note 1

[5] See note 1

[6] See note 1

[7] See note 3


About Passionist JPIC Australia

I am a priest with the Passionist Congregation and a part of our Australian Province which includes Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Vietnam. I have been ordained since December of 1992. I was born in the Philippines, though am from Spanish decent. I came to Australia in 1972 with my family when I was 11 years old, and we settled in Brisbane. That is where I did the rest of my growing up. On completing high school, I went to Queensland University where I studied for 4 years, completing a B.Sc. with a major in Microbiology. The following year I decided to enter into the Passionist Congregation to study for the priesthood. I trained for 9 years, and have been a priest for 25 years. In my time as a priest I have been Director of the Passionist Family Group Movement in Victoria, Tasmania and Queensland; conducted over 400 Parish Missions all around Australia and New Zealand, but particularly in Victoria and Western Australia; worked in adult faith education, Sacramental preparation for children and parents; Hospital chaplaincy; High school chaplaincy, in-services and retreats. In the year 200 I became engaged in developing young adult retreat teams and training them to carry on our high school retreat programs. I am also chair of our Province’s committee for Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation (JPIC). I am also a member of ACRATH (Australian Catholic Religious Against Trafficking in Humans).
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