Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea

Views from our Papua New Guinea office as the country marks its Independence Day, by Luke Petai and Fiona Fandim Marat. Based in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, Luke and Fiona are Senior Consultants with Alinea-Whitelum – Alinea International’s development consultancy service in Australia.

On March 24, 2020, the PNG government declared a National State of Emergency triggering a range of COVID-19 protocols intended to protect us from the disease, but stifled our independence as individuals. Like many countries around the world, measures implemented in PNG included social distancing, work-from-home and self-quarantine in the absence of a vaccine. We called it the “niupela pasin” – the new normal.

Authorities ordered closure of many small-to-medium businesses that housed a significant proportion of the employed population in the country. While such reconfiguration of the day-to-day lifestyle of Papua New Guineans minimized the spread of COVID-19, the negative social and economic impacts of these protocols were just as endemic.

Gender inequality in particular was exacerbated at several fronts under abruptly changed power relations between PNG men and women at home and in society at large.

Women’s unpaid domestic responsibilities grew with longer hours over multiple tasks. With the closure of schools and daycares, working mothers assumed the role of childminding. They spent longer hours performing childcare duties and tasks including cooking, laundry and other housekeeping chores. These circumstances rekindled the otherwise pre-existing gender inequality situation at home, which has been the basis for both academic discourse and development agendas for a long time.

In addition, during the State of Emergency and periods that followed, more women working informal jobs lost those jobs. Much of this work could not be undertaken in a work-from-home mode, nor did many women have the infrastructure and skills needed to engage in tele-commutable work arrangements. As a result, a large number of women experienced greater COVID-19 impacts as they became economically dependent on their husbands and other relatives. Other issues, such as the closure of markets where many PNG women sell food, art and craft products aggravated this economic discomfort. Such disempowerment practically disarmed women from decision-making at home and in society to an extent where male dominance and other components of the historical patriarchal PNG social organizations activated in some parts of the country and intensified in others.

This shift in economic power in favour of men also led to other gender issues, including violence. Gender-based violence in PNG during the COVID-19 era took different forms including physical, sexual, emotional and deprivation or neglect. Economic insecurity due to loss of jobs and money-making opportunities, and resulting economic dependence, presented both practical and perceived risks relating to gender-based violence. For example, with a decreased purchasing ability of the family, conflicting views over how to spend limited family money resulted in, or had the potential to, end in violence. Additionally, violence regularly occurred because the police were underequipped and overwhelmed to monitor the growing gender-based violence calls during this period. With lockdown and quarantine at home, victims and perpetrators continued to live together, making it possible for persistent occurrences of gender-based violence – an issue seen around the world throughout the pandemic.

PNG’s inroads and wins for gender equality and social inclusion took time and deep consideration. It was a historical process and involved consultative work, debate and international support while implementation arrangements, strategies and processes faced scrutiny and refinement.

COVID-19 impacts presented new challenges in advancing gender work, rekindling gender disparities between PNG men and women on many fronts including at domestic, economic and social levels.

We must now consider ways forward. One may lean towards the historical approach to rework the issue to the current state and into the future. While not impossible, it may require the same amount of time, resources and support as rendered in the past and up to when the pandemic arrived.

However, we argue the smart way of tackling gender issues is to take an emergency approach first, followed by reverting to the historical. An emergency approach will require specialist and technical guidance to bring gender work to its pre-pandemic state in a speedy, but credible, manner.

We join PNG in celebrating its Independence Day on September 16 while contemplating our options to forge a better, locally driven, gender equitable way out of the niupela pasin.