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YouthActionNet Blog

Can Youth Kick Gender Inequality in PNG?

Lisa Jones | March 7, 2017
This blog post is part of a series that explores the role of YouthActionNet fellows in advancing the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

For 27-year-old Jacqui Joseph, life in Papua New Guinea is a world of contrasts. She’s proud of her home country, but it’s also a place she's dedicated her life to changing. A mostly rural, community-based Pacific island nation home to 7 million, Papua New Guinea is rich in culture. More than 800 languages are spoken, making it the most linguistically-diverse place on earth. Yet many residents acknowledge one element of local culture that needs to change: gender stereotypes and violence against women.

“I grew up in an environment where safety was always a concern,” explains Jacqui. “When I began traveling outside my country, I would find myself stepping out at midnight to grab something to eat. It felt ironic that I could never do this back home—a place where I was supposed to feel safe.”

The shocking pervasiveness of gender-based violence in PNG was described in a 2016 Doctors Without Borders report as “one of the highest in the world outside of conflict zones.”

With a vision to make Papua New Guinea a safer and more equitable place, Jacqui co-founded Equal Playing Field, a youth-led organization that taps into the country’s fervent love of sports to promote respectful relationships.

A flagship initiative of Equal Playing Field is its primary school program which engages 12 – 16-year-old boys and girls in a mixed-gender sports competition that combines respectful relationship education with skills development and games. Each week, teams rotate between 30-minute recreational matches, where they refine their on-field skills, and one-hour educational sessions on respect and relationships.

Youth discuss issues of violence and abuse, learn how to find support networks and where to seek help, and discover the importance of developing empathy for others and seeking consent. Equal Playing Field’s volunteer trainers introduce new ideas through sporting metaphors such as the concepts of boundaries, teamwork, and fair play.

“Our participants are experiencing the physical, psychological, social and cultural changes surrounding puberty, and are starting to explore relationships with other young people. We help challenge behaviors around power and control so the students are better equipped to have loving, safe, respectful and equal relationships now and in the future,” explains Jacqui.

So far, more than 2,000 students have benefitted, and data collected by Equal Playing Field shows the needle is moving in the right direction in terms of respect among boys and girls. In a 2016 evaluation, student participants reported on the impact of the program:

  • 84% of students said that boys and girls could play together
  • 75% of students said incidents of violence decreased
  • 87% of students wanted to become agents of change in their country and community

Additional positive indicators include reports from schools on increased academic achievement and improved relationships between male and female students, as well as a rise in the number of youth who sought help and counseling through local support centers.

While sports for development models are popular worldwide, it’s the context Jacqui and her young team are working in that have garnered international attention and funding from the Australian government.

“Teaching boys and girls about respectful relationships in a country like Papua New Guinea may sound simple,” suggests Jacqui.

“But imagine teaching lessons to students who come from a country where more than 800 languages are spoken, who are raised in the mix of three to four different cultures, in communities that often reinforce the value of women as child bearers and cooks.”

Jacqui’s work answers the call of UN Sustainable Development Goal #5: Gender equality.

“We’re teaching boys and girls, who are going to be men and women later on, to be equals,” says Jacqui. “We’re showing them that what boys can do, girls can do as well.”

For Jacqui, fighting for the rights of women and girls—as well as including men and boys in the solution—is an act of love for her country and a bold statement of hope in the future.

“For the first time, I am seeing children at an early age begin to question and challenge social norms on the value of women. For the first time, I see an emphasis on respect in relationships,” she shares. “Working with the young generation of Papua New Guinea is my biggest privilege in life.”

Jacqui describes the work of Equal Playing Field in YouthActionNet's new Goal Getters video series.