SINCE I began work with the family planning service Marie Stopes International in 2014, I have learned to embrace the simple fact that choices change lives.
Many women in Papua New Guinea are deprived of their right to be independent thinkers. This is evident when our cultures, customs and traditions label women as domestic assets and only let men - the hierarchical leaders - make decisions.
Many times women are forced into early marriage, often as young girls. Deprived of their right to education they later become disempowered.
These women have no choice but to fend for their families: they toil on the land, collect firewood, do the laundry, cook dinner and much more besides.
It is a complex and silent struggle for these women, who cannot exercise their ability to choose freely and responsibly the number and spacing of their children.
I started my career with Marie Stopes Papua New Guinea as an Outreach Coordinator in Arawa, Central Bougainville.
As a young Bougainvillean woman, I was ecstatic to be back home and working.
My job involved going out into communities and providing quality and friendly family planning services.
I did not realise then the magnitude of the work I was doing until I saw firsthand the difference that being able to decide and make a choice for oneself brings much more rewards than ever imagined for women.
I met Grace on outreach at one of the villages. She had black curly hair and smooth skin. Despite her smile and calmness of voice I could tell by her stance and the wrinkles on her young face that she was shouldering a heavy burden.
When we spoke, I found out she had six children. The eldest was 10 and the youngest six months. Her husband was a drunk and she was left to cater for the family’s needs. Furthermore, he had abandoned her and their children for a younger woman but often visited Grace for a one night stand.
Grace was trapped in a vicious cycle of pregnancy and could no longer contain her silence.
Adding to her troubles, she was afraid of falling pregnant again. If she spoke up or refused to have sex with her husband, she would be reprimanded and most often beaten up.
A sense of confidence and relief filled Grace when she learned she could freely choose the spacing of her children. She was overwhelmed with a feeling of empowerment because she never dreamed she could make this life changing decision herself.
I visited Grace 10 months later and was astonished to see that she was robust and full of life.
She said she was now able to spend more time in the garden and sell what she could at the market. She sent her two elder children to school and had a little extra money to support her family. But above all, she spoke with confidence that she now lived a happy and satisfying life.
Grace’s situation, like many others in Papua New Guinea, had been unrecognised. In a country like ours, where many women and infants die due to complications during pregnancy or childbirth and families live in poverty, having the ability to choose freely the number and spacing of children opens many possibilities for women and their families.
They can complete their education, have a long-lasting relationship and feed, clothe and educate their children.
There are many sensitivities that surround family planning and work that is done in the sexual and reproductive health field.
Stigma, religion, culture and gender norms hinder women’s access to these important services.
Despite these challenges, there are organisations of passionate and committed people who are courageous and break boundaries to continue delivering services to marginalised and vulnerable groups.
I encourage all of us to work together and empower every girl and woman with the knowledge and ability to think and decide freely and responsibly for themselves as choices change lives.
My story is based on a true account and the name of the client has been altered to protect her privacy. This is in no way a representation of Marie Stopes PNG but an individual submission on my part - LBK