Papua New Guinea is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a woman, but the level playing field of sport offers a rare atmosphere of equality and football, known colloquially as soccer, is at the forefront of a multi-generational anti-violence campaign.
A trio of young women pose for a photograph, flashing dazzling smiles and just a hint of teenage attitude. Immediately, they attract the attention of nearby boys of a similar age. The sass quickly subsides, replaced by shy giggles amid applause and good-natured offers of modelling contracts.
It is a scene that could be played out anywhere in the world where singles mingle.
Except this isn’t anywhere in the world. This is Papua New Guinea, one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a woman. Good-natured the banter may be on this occasion, but statistically, two out of every three girls here will suffer assault or sexual violence.
“Some years back when I was a student, I saw a lot of fighting between men and women on the streets and groups against groups, school children against school children on the streets,” says Margaret Aka, Just Play Technical Coordinator and coach of the PNG women’s U-16 national team.
“The last few years I’ve seen that it is quietening down a little bit. A lot of people now feel bad when they do have an argument in public places. Of course, at homes, it is still happening. Generally, people have to be educated on what violence means.”
More disturbing, is that for many generations, domestic violence has been condoned by both men and women, in some places, overwhelmingly.
“In the Pacific, we have this culture of the man being the power of every decision and every thing and this has got to be stopped,” says Just Play Operations Manager PNG Micah Kaneng.
That creates a rub between old and new culture, according to Aka.
“There’s some good things behind our culture and there are also bad things behind that culture,” she says.
“So, I believe we need to integrate what’s good with our culture and what’s good with the modernised world and if we put that together, we have a good society.”
And so, the #EndViolence campaign came to life. From the Australian Aid-supported Just Play school program, to direct targeting of senior men’s and women’s teams, even parents and grandparents on the sidelines, the round-ball game is trying to reach every corner of PNG society with its message of social change. From giveaways at the ground to social media hashtags, the aim is to first identify the problem of violence, and then end it.
“We have so much violence, especially against women,” says PNG Football Association’s Leo Jakanduo.
“We have to educate the kids that this is wrong – so kids sometimes tell their mum and dad this is wrong. We have seen many changes in the community, especially with children.”
Sports fields have been identified as places women are shown respect that is too often absent elsewhere.
“One of our key messages is; ‘respect one another’. Boys take it now at an early age that girls can also play and they must be respected,” Kaneng says.
“Now you can see girls are involved in sports activities and other activities they weren’t allowed in years back so it is a way forward. Down the line, who knows?”
The simple fact that women are being encouraged to play is progress, according to Aka.
“You see a lot of girls participating in football and you see their parents coming and supporting them,” she says.
“You see a lot of girls going to school now and their parents are supporting them because they know that these girls do have a future. I can see a lot of parents are changing for themselves and their families and their daughters which is a good thing going forward.”
Going forward is the key. From Port Moresby to Paris, boys will likely always engage girls in banter – and vice versa. But if PNG is to truly go forward, those girls need to find it fun, and never fearful. That means, it is time to #ENDviolence.
This story was produced by ABC International Development as part of the Pacific Sports Partnerships funded by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.