College of Public Health, Medical and Veterinary Sciences

Publish Date

25 June 2019

Women lead the way to improve sexual health

JCU researchers have found that providing basic sexual health education for women is a simple yet profound way to improve sexual health and address gender equality in Papua New Guinea.

Currently, there is a shortage of sexual health education services in Papua New Guinea (PNG). Senior Research Fellow, Dr Michelle Redman-MacLaren, and College of Medicine and Dentistry PhD Candidate, Rachael Tommbe, have been researching the best way to respond to requests for information about sexual health they receive from PNG women.

According to Michelle, education is an important tool to break down cultural and religious stigmas surrounding sexual health.

A Goroka chief’s daughter

Goroka, Papua New Guinea

“In PNG, education is everything. It provides the power of choice. What we are doing is challenging the gender norms in a way that empowers women by giving them information to safely communicate with their spouses and the community about sexual health and wellbeing.”
Dr Michelle Redman-MacLaren

In 2018, the female partners of university students studying at the Pacific Adventist University (PAU) in PNG asked the researchers to provide some basic education about sexual health and wellbeing. The women want to use the information to support other women in their families and communities.

“Even if you don't have an education yourself, but you are closely connected to someone with an education you have more esteem in the community,” Michelle said. “The female spouses are seen as esteemed women in the community, and they were being asked for advice about sexual health issues which they felt ill-prepared for.”

In partnership with PAU researchers, Michelle and Rachael tailored an educational training package for the women’s unique social and cultural context. Within the package, the researchers had to carefully address sensitive cultural and religious topics.

“There are very clear, culturally prescribed gender roles in PNG and there is the overlay of the Christianisation process over traditional culture,” Michelle said. “Those two things impact how sex and sexuality are spoken about.

“Accurate sexual health education is important because most of the current support is provided through Church mechanisms and informal social conversations – there are not a lot of services.”

“We are working on the Meri Lida project, which means ‘women leaders,’ because the women told us that they needed support to be leaders in their communities. The big picture of the research is to create a highly relevant training package for those women in PNG.”

The Meri Lida team: Rachael Tommbe, Kelwyn Browne and Dr Michelle Redman-MacLaren
Back of a Papua New Guinean woman in traditional dress
Meri Lida team; Rachael Tommbe, Kelwyn Browne, Dr Michelle Redman-MacLaren (L to R)

Empowering workshops for women

Rachael and a group of PAU researchers presented the two-day training workshop to 13 women from across the Pacific Islands and PNG.

“We used Tok Pisin, our national language, and English concurrently," she said. “We covered a lot of topics in the two-day program including the roles of a women leader, gender roles, the problem-solving framework for the Meri Lida project, basic communication skills, and a basic sexual health and well-being overview.”

Traditionally, sexual health and wellbeing are culturally and religiously sacred topics that are not openly spoken about in PNG. The workshops allowed the women to communicate about their own sexual health and wellbeing experiences.

“We learnt that a lot do not discuss sex,” Rachael said. “Sex is not normally talked about between a married couple. Some of the women said this was the first time that they could openly talk about sex.”

“We learnt that the women didn't know much about the basics of sexual health. We had to teach them about the female anatomy and the role of sexual reproductive organs. They said that they can teach their daughters. These women had the power to communicate about what they learnt which was very positive.”

The JCU researchers aim to tailor training packages to women and men in PNG. Rachael emphasised that the educational workshops have the power to create social and cultural change in the Pacific nation.

“In PNG, violence is a large part of a woman's sexual experience,” she said. “When it comes to sexual health, we need to be working with both women and men. We have plans for the women, and we know that there is a great need and interest in sexual health education when it comes to the men as well.

“What we are doing is challenging the gender norms in a way that empowers women by giving them information to safely communicate with their spouses and the community about sexual health and wellbeing.”

In the future, Michelle and Rachael are looking to support the roll out of the Meri Lida workshops across the country.

“We are in the process of improving the package,” Michelle said.  “We are looking at how we can deliver and systemize the package through existing Church and health systems so that this work can reach more women.”

Michelle and Rachael are presenting their research at the Health and Gender in PNG seminar,which will run from 4:00-5:00 pm on Thursday, 27 June as part of JCU’s Sustainable Development Goals seminar series.

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Featured researcher

Dr Michelle Redman-MacLaren

Senior Research Fellow

As the Associate Dean of Research Education in JCU Medicine and Dentistry, Michelle strives to create spaces that support successful higher degree students and their advisors. As a public health researcher, Michelle facilitates qualitative and mixed-methods research.

Michelle co-researches with Indigenous peoples, especially Pacific Islander and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, to improve sexual and reproductive health, to reduce transmission of infectious diseases, and to strengthen health systems. Michelle is also exploring arts-based approaches to public health research through poetic inquiry.