THE JAKARTA POST
IN MT HAGEN, A TOWN HIGH UP in the valleys of the Western Highlands of Papua New Guinea, a group of local women, many of whom are HIV positive, have begun a self-help initiative to achieve dignity and a better standard of living.
Many live in informal settlements on the town’s periphery and confront daily struggles with poverty, drugs, family violence and inter-clan conflict.
Established in 2007, the Mt Hagen Handicraft Group consists of 50 women, of whom 25 have AIDS, all facing social and economic hardship. Handicraft coordinator Barbara Pagasa spoke evocatively of the women’s lives.
“Life is a dream of hope and many think and wish if only an angel from above could rescue them from this life of struggle that is hidden deep inside their hearts,” she said.
“A fear of hunger, sickness and death awaits and creeps quietly into their minds, thinking if I don’t wake up as early as 5am during the first breaking of the day, looking for twigs, empty cartons to cook breakfast, God knows what.
“If I don’t do it, then who else is going to do it?” she asked. “This has been their day to day struggle to meet their basic needs and to have a decent plate of food on the table each day.”
In a nation where women are significantly underrepresented in decision-making roles and suffer from a high maternal mortality rate, AIDS is another cruel burden. According to the United Nations Development Program, “gender-based violence affecting women and girls has reached unprecedented levels making them vulnerable to contracting HIV/AIDS.”
In 2009, the National Aids Council of Papua New Guinea reported that 34,100 people were living with the disease, approximately 0.9% of the population, with 60% of reported cases located in the highlands. Women comprise 56% of known cases.
The group’s aim is to empower women through self-generated incomes and a physically and psychologically supportive environment and, thus, to “make a difference to women by improving their ways of living and ability to escape the traps of these crises.”
The first aim is achieved by developing the skills of women in sewing and the designing and making of bilums, versatile and unique string bags that have become cultural icons of PNG.
Every week Julie makes her way to the handicraft group’s offices situated behind a busy bakery in the centre of Mt Hagen. In this sanctuary, away from the grinding noise of trucks on the main road and endless hustle of roadside market stalls, she finds peace in the women’s quiet industry and gentle friendship.
Julie has been living with HIV for nine years, ever since she contracted the virus from her husband who had had multiple sexual partners. “My husband died nine years ago and I have two children I am responsible for,” she said.
In addition to the economic challenges of being a single parent, Julie has been ostracized by her family because of her HIV status.
“When my husband died, my family did not want to go near me or drink from the same cups or eat from the same plates,” she recounted. “Even now, when I visit my relatives, they make sure the utensils I use are kept separate from the others.”
“With the bilums I make and sell, and with the money I get, I buy school fees and food and medication,” she continued.
But the support and friendship of the women in the group is priceless.
“Now that I have joined the group, I have lots of friends and I’m very happy,” Julie said. Within the handicraft group, she is also a member of True Friends, a core group of HIV positive women who focus on counseling and companionship.
Seated on the floor, another handicraft group member, Akumele, was looping a beautiful bilum featuring a kaleidoscope of brilliant colors interwoven with green threads. “These are our colors,” she declared. “We are a mixed people, and then the green is our environment.”
Bilums are made by a method of string looping or crocheting, which produces a bag which is both strong and elastic.
“Traditionally, all mothers make bilums with the bush material fibers and use them for going to the gardens and carrying their crops, garden foods, back to the house, and there is another one for carrying babies,” the handicraft group’s executive, Wendy Puma, explained.
“There is also a bilum for when young girls want to go and get married. They have a special traditional bilum that they have to carry to the groom’s house.” Bilums are also used at funerals, feasts and cultural shows.
Today women have innovated, readily adopting ideas from contemporary fashion and using colored wool-based yarns to create new bilum designs.
According to Akumele, it can take one week to make a small bilum and up to one month to complete a large one, which might sell for approximately K30-50. Each bilum made by the group has a special “label”, three colored strings attached which symbolise “make-crisis-history”.
Eighty percent of the revenue from bilum sales is given directly to the women makers. The group also manages a savings program for members, so the women are able to conserve a percentage of their income for the future.
The Mt Hagen Handicraft Group is also looking to the future and planning to expand the scope of their project. Recently the organization has reached out to sex workers in the Mt Hagen area, inviting them to join, train in bilum-making and try an alternative source of income.
By the end of 2012, the group hopes to have a total of 80 members by attracting vulnerable and HIV positive women from village communities in more remote areas of the Western Highlands.