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Standing before a large crowd in Papua New Guinea’s Markham district, hair braided half way down her back, Jennifer Baing Waiko speaks confidently and clearly.
“2012 is the year that we will be electing our new leader,” she says.
“The previous government, their time is finished. Now it is a new time for us in Markham to elect a new leader. I would like everyone here today to know, what kind of woman I am.”
Those before her include men and women of all ages, and clusters of children. Adults are listening intently, and nodding in agreement.
It’s a scene from a collection of films celebrating the unique role of women in modern Papua New Guinea.
Produced by ANU College of Asia and the Pacific researcher Dr Ceridwen Spark, other women in the Pawa Meri (Strong Women) series include Miriam Potopi, one of the first female village magistrates in PNG.
There is also Gina Baidam, a community minded woman who wants to build a birthing facility in her remote village of Severimabu, and Rita, who manages a highly successful restaurant in Goroka.
“The majority of women in Melanesian countries are not tertiary educated,” says Spark, who is based in the College’s State, Society and Governance in Melanesia program.
They also face domestic and sexual abuse. An often-quoted statistic points out that two-thirds of married PNG women have been hit by their husbands.
Spark is well aware of the problem, having grown up in PNG. But she doesn’t find it useful to focus on grim statistics alone.
“I also see that there is room for focusing on women’s strengths and the positive things they are doing,” she says.
“As a researcher, most of my choices have been around studying those types of possibilities.”
As the educated daughter of a politician, Jennifer Baing Waiko is hardly typical of the majority of PNG women. The mother-of-two studied at the University of Tasmania’s Fisheries College, has travelled widely, and volunteered for Greenpeace, World Wildlife Fund and other NGOs.
One day, while picking up rubbish in Costa Rica, it occurred to her that she should be assisting her own people. It is this decision that saw her become an active and valued member of her community.
“I think in PNG, being educated, to a tertiary level, is sometimes seen as giving some people a certain authority,” says Spark.
“With Jennifer, I think any sort of respect that she might have gained is also due to her willingness to live in and contribute to the community where she grew up. She’s just a part of it.”
In 2007 Jennifer and her husband Bao Waiko co-founded a trailblazing organisation called Save PNG, which inspires locals to embrace their cultural identity and protect their traditional foodways.
Together the dynamic pair have produced a five-part educational television series called Café Niugini, aimed at encouraging healthy eating habits.
“She has the skills and experience to be the director of her own organisation,” Bao Waiko says candidly in the film showcasing her achievements.
Another local man further highlights Waiko’s influence, when he mentions her role in organising the district’s annual banana festival.
“In Markham culture, the traditional practice was that it was taboo for a woman to organise the banana festival,” he says.
“In our culture only men were allowed to organise it. But now, Jennifer has done it.
“I believe that Jennifer opened our eyes here in Markham. So now we Markham people are starting to revive our culture again.”
Falling short of winning a seat in the 2012 Markham Open Election, Waiko concedes defeat with grace. In a country where there are only three female National MPs, compared to 111 men, she finished fifth out of a field of 35 in her own electorate. But she is not resigned to the outcome.
“I believe that one day, if people are happy for me to do this work, I too would be happy and I can do this kind of work,” she says.
Like Waiko, Spark grew up in PNG, then obtained further education in Australia. After completing a PhD on Indigenous Australians, she returned to PNG to do more research.
She’s now interviewing emerging women leaders like Jennifer Baing Waiko across Melanesia, extending her work to include young women in Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.
“The purpose is to focus on what the educated and urban dwelling women think about leadership, and the ways in which they contribute to the development of their countries,” she says.
As a research fellow in the State, Society and Governance in Melanesia program, Spark is exploring gender and social change among educated, urban women in PNG, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.
She believes the current generation of young Melanesian women are different to their mothers and aunties.
“They want to continue to achieve in their careers. They want to balance having children with work.
“Broadly speaking, in the past, women’s roles were to have children. And contribute to domestic labour.
“This generation of young women is at the forefront of change.”
Evidencing this change, more than 40 years after Australian women’s magazine Cleo targeted women in need of reading material that deviated from recipes and knitting tips, PNG women are embracing Stella.
Launched in 2012, the magazine is the realisation of 33-year-old editor Amanda Donigi’s dream to create a publication she would want to read.
It is unusual, says Spark, because it doesn’t decry educated women as ‘modern’, or single PNG women as inauthentic or otherwise suspect.
“When I first saw it, I remember thinking how exciting it was because I hadn’t seen anything like it before,” she says.
“Something that was produced by a local woman, celebrating the achievements of modern PNG women.”
Such women include female pilots and truck drivers at mines.
“I think that a magazine that honours and celebrates those women is really, potentially transformative overtime, in changing ideas, about what women can be,” Spark adds.
“Because it is publicly representing those women as worthy of interest and as making legitimate choices.”
Spark has a PhD in Gender Studies.
In 2011-12, she sought and gained AusAID funding for the Pawa Meri project, which involved making six films about leading women in PNG. Jennifer Baing is the subject of one of these films, ‘Meri Markham’.