In her recent article on a women’s boarding house in Port Moresby, Melissa Demian (2016) notes that there have been few studies of the informal association of Papua New Guinea (PNG) women outside the demands of kin group affiliation. Demian suggests that this is because women’s informal non-kin based associations have ‘only recently become visible as a social form’. Yet women’s groups have existed in churches across the country since before Independence. As Bronwen Douglas (2003) notes, while outside researchers may consider church groups ‘unfashionable’ they have long provided forums for women to gather for support, conduct fundraising and lead community activities and training. Although discussing the Pacific (and not only PNG), Abby McLeod’s more recent article on women’s leadership (2015:13) also captures the significance of church groups for women’s activism.
Put simply, women’s church groups have provided a safe ‘leadership training ground’ for women throughout the region. [They] have increasingly performed both consciousness-raising and activist roles, discussing and drawing community and state attention to a number of issues affecting them such as domestic violence, reproductive health and literacy. Today, women’s church groups form the cornerstone of women’s civil society participation, with vast networks connecting regional, national, provincial (or island) and local groups, often with reference to broader global agendas.
Noting the incorporation of politicised agendas into church activities, McLeod’s analysis suggests that the historically troubled relationship between church groups and more globally-oriented organisations may be less oppositional than previously. Shortly after its establishment in 1975, PNG’s National Council of Women (NCW) was perceived by women who were active members of church groups as ‘a threat to their identity’, dominated by urban educated women who were out of touch with the needs of ‘grass roots’ women and as having ‘principles that conflicted with Christian norms’. To address this in the 1990s, the PNG NCW worked hard to form links with church groups, ‘in particular by forging closer linkages with the major national church women’s organizations’.
Since this time there appears to be more cooperation between church and state run women’s organisations, an approach reflected in a greater overlap in terms of agendas, including, for example, the promotion of gender equality as part of what it means to be a modern Christian. Today Papua New Guinean women, particularly those living in urban areas, are likely to be members of church women’s groups, with some also being involved in more rights-focused organisations, thus making once significant divisions less so. Moreover, the PNG NCW is less active and influential than it was historically, since the death in 2014 of its long-serving president, Scholla Kakas and because of funding cuts.
Perhaps partly as a consequence of NCW’s perceived decline, but more likely because of the increasing influence of global human rights discourses in PNG, several new women’s rights and interest groups have formed in recent years. Typically based in Port Moresby, these have developed in response to two main themes, women’s economic empowerment and gender violence. Examples include the Business Coalition for Women (est. 2013); the Port Moresby Chamber of Commerce Women’s Advisory Centre (est. 2011); the PNG Women in Business Foundation (est. 2006); and on the goal of ending violence against women, the National Haus Krai movement (est. 2013); Coalition for Change (2012) and the Leniata Legacy (Kaperi Leniata Project). Most are led by educated, urban women, with some being funded primarily by overseas agencies or donations from individual contributors. Some of these coalitions will persist to create a positive influence on development in PNG; others may be short-lived. But in the increasingly ‘gender aware’ climate, BPW has a long-held reputation for transforming the lives of girls and women through education.