Youth take the lead in Papua New Guinea

Youth activist Benaiah Nari, in Papua New Guinea, helps his peers make safe and respectful sexual and reproductive health choices. © UNFPA Pacific
  • 24 February 2015

FIJI/PORT MORESBY – Benaiah Nari grew up amid poverty and ethnic clashes in Papua New Guinea, a country where sexual violence, sexually transmitted infections and adolescent pregnancy are rife. After watching his peers navigate the treacherous waters of adolescence, he became determined to change the status quo.

“I grew up in a squatter settlement where I was engaged in a lot of stuff harmful to me as a young person,” Mr. Nari, now 24, told UNFPA. “But I was determined to change the course of my life and that’s how I ended up in university.”

At the University of Papua New Guinea (UPNG), Mr. Nari is earning his second bachelor’s degree and working to advance the health and human rights of young people in his home country.

Tackling multiple challenges

Papua New Guinea – often abbreviated PNG – is a collection of hundreds of islands, with more than 800 languages and over 7 million people. Yet the country’s young people share many of the same concerns, chief among them gender inequality, gender-based violence, and poor access to sexual and reproductive health information and services. 

According to recent population and development figures from the Pacific Islands, the country ranks in the bottom 20 on the Gender Inequality Index. Papua New Guinea also has the highest HIV prevalence rates among Pacific island countries in the region.

Adolescent birth rates are also very high, nearly twice the regional average. Maternal mortality rates are also about twice the regional average, in part because early pregnancy poses increased risks to women’s and girl’s health.

In the 1990s, in response to the alarming rates of sexually transmitted infections, sexual violence and reproductive health concerns among the young people, UPNG created a peer education programme. The initiative, supported by UNFPA and Marie Stopes International, aims to empower young people to make safe sexual and reproductive health choices.

Nearly 20 years later, the programme continues to have an impact, reaching young people like Mr. Nari.

Speaking openly and honestly

Mr. Nari first attended a peer education session at the university in 2010, and the issues addressed hit close to home.

“I could relate to what they were talking about: I came from there,” he says. “I had experienced what they were talking about, and I wanted to get involved.”

Mr. Nari is now part of a dynamic team that raises awareness about sexual and reproductive health and human rights in the student residential halls on campus. They respond to queries from students, and refer to external experts when they receive complex medical questions.

Still, the youth advocates face resistance.

“Talking about sex in PNG is one of the main challenges,” Mr. Nari said. “It is not something we discuss openly [in our communities], and our work has led to perceptions that we encourage sex. But once students realize that it is really about saving lives and safeguarding their future, they come for contraceptives.”

Healthy mind, healthy body, healthy sexuality

Guided by alumni peer educators, the activists undertake a variety of activities, including poetry slams, theatre productions and sporting events.

One such initiative, the H3MBS Games, is fast becoming one of the most popular activities on campus. Organized annually, the event features teams competing in football, basketball and volleyball, united under the tournament’s “Three Hs” motto: healthy mind, healthy body and healthy sexuality.

The impact is already being felt on campus.

“There are a lot less people coming to see us about unplanned pregnancy, and the university security officials say there is much less vandalism or fighting, especially when we carry out our activities consistently,” says Mr. Nari.

Almost 75 per cent of graduates who are peer educators go on to management positions, he added, so the lessons are also making their way into the country’s future workforce.

“We start small, but as long as we keep it going… the investment in this programme is actually making a difference,” he said, “and that makes me more determined to continue.”

–Ariela Zibiah

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