Barbara told us her story sitting on the ground outside the new Blue Haus in the Goroka Highlands where she had travelled by cargo plane to be with us. She flew in from Mt Hagen with two pilots, sitting just behind them, the plane noisy as hell, doors open, Barbara hanging on for dear life! She’s an amazing lady, so strong and yet warm, kind and so very on the ball. She’s so keen to help the women from her mission that she’s been learning English from Google for the past year so that she can communicate with us on their behalf.
Barbara lives in Mt Hagen with her husband Michael Pagasa, an administrator and missionary within the Baptist Church. They have an extended family of children and adopted children who they have cared for over many years. Michael is a kind and lovely man who fully supports Barbara in her endeavours, though unfortunately, this is not the norm.
Barbara started a program in Mt Hagen funded initially by AusAID. There is a huge problem with HIV and AIDS in the community. Women are “HIV widowed”. If a woman contracts the HIV virus she is shunned from the community and she will quite often contract it from her husband. Once the women are married they become part of the husband’s tribe as her family have received payment as a cultural exchange or dowry. The wife then ‘belongs’ to the husband’s family and becomes his asset. When the husband abandons her it is impossible for her to go back to her people, the women are literally stuck as her children then belong to his family. Divorce is not allowed, so the women are left bereft and pushed to the side. In the urban setting it is a little different, but in the Highlands it remains traditional.
Barbara set out to train women in prevention, protection and hygiene, and to help them get back on their feet with some skills so that they can support themselves. Most of these women are have not had the opportunity to be educated, and therefore can’t get a job. With the AusAID funding, Barbara was able to teach them different programs, such as micro-finance, how to save money, using a sewing machine and cooking. She did this for a number of years until AusAID decided to pull out of that area.
Barbara was looking for another way to help the women get on their feet, so she contacted Flo – Florence Jaukae Kamel, a leader amongst the Bilum weavers working with Among Equals. Barbara saw the potential of making and selling Bilum bags. She realised this was a way the women could generate income, and look after themselves and their families.
As a result of Barbara’s work, the women of Mt Hagen are now able to support themselves, and gain independence.
“When there is money coming into their pockets they see it makes a difference, we can see it puts food on the table, nice decent clothes to wear and they can go to school with the money they earn. I am so proud because I can see the light coming at the end of the tunnel”.