Breaking with tradition

Marketplace Staff Mar 20, 2007

KAI RYSSDAL: The country of Papua New Guinea shares half the island of New Guinea, near Indonesia in the South Pacific ocean. It exports gold, oil and timber to drive its economy. There are plentiful fisheries, too. But still the World Bank estimates 70 percent of the population lives in poverty. Almost half on less than a dollar a day.

Men have mostly been the wage-earners. But Skye Rohde reports economic opportunities for women are changing those traditional gender roles.

SKYE ROHDE: The first time I set foot in Papua New Guinea, I was a new Peace Corps volunteer. It was January 1999, in the capital city, Port Moresby. I was so scared of offending anyone that I managed to do it anyway: the edge of my skirt blew over the betel nuts on a woman’s tarp at a makeshift market. The woman glared at me. I apologized: sori, sori. But what I did was taboo: a woman who steps over something pollutes it.

Unspoken rules like these have been around far longer than the national government, or even the Christian missionaries. The people of New Guinea have been subsistence farmers for generations. Almost everything they eat, they grow themselves in immense gardens.

Their gender roles were clearly defined out of necessity, says Moses Venapoe. He runs a microfinance organization in the city of Goroka. His family housed me during my Peace Corps training, and again when I went back to visit last September.

MOSES VENAPOE: The women in the house, they do cooking, washing clothes as well as doing the dishes. They look after the children as well. But men, normally we go out, look for food.

Though the man is seen as the breadwinner, the woman has always been the engine of the household.

It’s not a glamorous life by any means, says Janet. She’s from Kabiufa Village, 10 kilometers outside Goroka.

“Life is hard here,” Janet says. “I sleep and wake up and think about going to my garden. Now I’ve finished working in the garden, I’m finding some food and I’m coming back. After this, I’ll go down to the market and find some money to buy a little salt.”

I’m amazed by the strength of these women. They carry 80-pound bags of kaukau, or sweet potato, on their heads and backs. They work all day long cleaning, cooking, gardening, selling vegetables at the market, and then they weave string bags called bilums whenever they aren’t doing anything else.

But things are changing. Women are becoming more empowered. I’m not just talking about more women wearing trousers, which they are, or more women driving, which they are. Today, 20 percent of Papua New Guineans work as teachers, as housecleaners, in stores and businesses. Many of them are women.

Thirty-three-year-old Josephine Ketawa works at the telephone company Telikom. She’s also taken out a loan to build her own house in her parents’ village. That’s unheard of for single women. Josephine says her extended family has mixed feelings.

JOSEPHINE KETAWA: They’re happy, they’re proud of me. And at the same time, the men are ashamed. Especially the young boys. They think they should be the ones doing it before me.

Moses Venapoe’s wife, Delta, works with him dispersing small loans at MV Microfinance.

DELTA VENAPOE: Most of the ladies that we give loans are single mothers. And I ask them why, and they said, ‘Oh, the men, they think that they are hero. When they see that we are getting old, they want a young girl. Like we can be a breadwinner for the home; we don’t need the men.

“We don’t need the men.” That’s something I never even heard mentioned in 1999.

The ladies use these loans to pay for food or their kids’ school fees. But education is also an enormous challenge for the women themselves.

Down the road in Ifiufa Village, Kathy Giapo runs the four-year-old Ifiufa Women’s Resource Center, which operates 18 literacy schools. She estimates that only 5 percent of women in the village can read and write.

She’s doing what she can to enroll more women in the schools.

KATHY GIAPO: Most of them are already writing. They can read and say ABC to zed, and count the numbers, 1 to 100. So at least they are doing something. And they are well off. And they are very happy with this project.

Even with improved access to education and more job opportunities outside the village, the women of Papua New Guinea teeter between the clearly defined gender roles of the past and the thrilling — and overwhelming — position of having choices for the first time.

In Papua New Guinea, I’m Skye Rohde for Marketplace.

RYSSDAL: Skye’s story comes to us by way of the radio collective Hearing Voices.
Delta Venapoe and Josephine Ketawa (Photos by Sky Rohde)

Kathy Giapo, who runs the Ifiufa Women’s Resource Center.

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