Polygamy and sexual violence
Another important aspect of the sexual health education project has been how the common practice of polygamy in PNG impacts on sexual health issues, such as STIs, HIV transmission and sexual violence.
“Many husbands in the Highlands of PNG have more than one wife, some even having up to five wives. Traditionally this practice was common for the village chiefs, so as to guarantee more male children who were needed to protect the community from tribal enemies. However, the traditional practice of polygamy very much continues in PNG contemporary society as a sign of status and wealth. In fact, some professional women even prefer it if they are wife number four or five as they don’t get ‘bothered’ as much by the husband.
“On the other hand, it can also create a lot of problems, especially if the husband spends more time with the youngest or the most recent wife. Often in this case, the other wife/wives will manage her own sexual energies by having a sexual life independent of the husband. But this practice is often not accepted by the husband, who may retaliate with violence.
“Sadly, violence is quite commonly part of a woman's sexual experience in PNG. So when it comes to sexual health, we really need to be having an impact on both women and men, which this project has the potential to do.”
Reducing HIV and STI transmission
HIV transmission is an ongoing area of concern in PNG which continues to have the highest rate of HIV infection in the Pacific region.
“Obviously the practice of polygamy, of having multiple sexual partners, increases the risk of HIV transmission, as well as rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
“So the issue of sexual health in PNG is quite a complex area, and there is a lot of information that needs to be included in the Strongim Meri Lida education curriculum without overwhelming the participants who are mostly women from villages and smaller communities.”
In the future, Michelle and Rachael, as lead program coordinator, are hoping to roll out the Strongim Meri Lida workshops across the country by partnering with women’s ministry groups within the network of churches that feature strongly in PNG society.
“Church groups are well established in PNG communities,” said Rachael. “People in PNG tend to trust their church and the programs they provide, and most people tend to gather together at the churches. We feel it is more powerful for the success of the Strongim Meri Lida project to work with these local, church-based, grassroots communities.”
Using the Meri Lida Model for Covid-19 health information
Rachael has also been leading a collaborative joint venture between JCU’s College of Medicine and Dentistry and PNG’s Pacific Adventist University, to further utilise the Strongim Meri Lida model of education within PNG to share accurate information relating to Covid-19.
She has also recently completed her PhD at James Cook University, focusing on the capacity of health systems within PNG to support the male circumcision practice that has been linked to reducing HIV transmission rates.