(Goroka, Papua New Guinea) - Sexual harassment of school going girls may prevent Papua New Guinea from achieving the Millennium Development Goal of eliminating gender disparity in education by 2015.
Papua New Guinea’s new free education policy has dramatically increased school enrollment, and a gross enrollment rate of 80 percent is within reach by 2015. But the United Nations’ eight MDGs pertaining to girls’ education remain elusive.
While PNG’s constitution promotes equal participation by men and women in national development, political, cultural, social and infrastructural factors inhibit girls staying in the school system, reflecting a wider lack of women in the formal workforce, governance and decision-making roles.
The United Nations Development Program rates the nation at 153 out of 187 countries in gender equality. The education department reports the average educational attainment of girls is grade 10. On average boys complete high school, reaching grade 12.
However, the nation’s cultural and social diversity means there is geographical variance.
“The state of school infrastructure, particularly in rural areas, is a significant hindrance to the achievement of equitable education outcomes,” said Arnold Kukari, leader of the universal basic education research program at the National Research Institute.
Betty Hinamunimo, field officer with CARE International, a nongovernmental organization that works in partnership with the education department, said factors impeding girls’ education included “distance and cultural and social barriers, such as the fear families have of sending girls to urban centers where their safety is not guaranteed.”
Girls in PNG are at high risk of domestic and sexual violence, sexual harassment in schools, commercial exploitation and HIV, which pose serious threats to their health and education.
Ume Wainetti at the Family Sexual Violence Action Center said, “When FSVAC conducted the study on violence against children in 2005, young girls in rural schools said they get harassed by teachers and by male students, especially when they are going to school or going home.”
Wainetti said many of the young girls interviewed by FSVAC, based in the capital of Port Moresby, were already mothers.
Cultural and social barriers to education include the burden placed on girls of family care, domestic responsibilities and customary marriage, which happens as early as 12 years old. The International Center for Research on Women estimates a third of girls in the developing world are married before 18 years old and have children before they reach 20.
The education department’s plan for decreasing the disparity stresses training staff in gender sensitization and sexual violence awareness.
Philip Afuti, president of the PNG teachers’ association, Eastern Highlands, and head teacher of North Goroka primary school, is committed to gender equality. Eighty percent of teachers are female, while the school has 630 male and 523 female students.
“We want to see the girls have an equal opportunity as boys in the education system,” Afuti declared. “They should be able to build this nation in partnership. We want to see that. PNG will only develop when both males and females are educated.”
This year, the national government rolled out a free and subsidized education policy, which has impacted female enrolment.
“We have increased the numbers of females enrolling,” Afuti verified. “Some who left a few years ago have also come back.”
But there are also inadequate mechanisms of support for school-going girls suffering from sexual abuse.
“If there are avenues for redress to such offences, these are not made known to students and parents,” Wainetti said.
“It is unfortunate that many teachers will not do anything about these abuses until the parents of the girl or boy turn up at the school to beat up the students who have been harassing their child,” Wainetti said.
-- This article originally appeared in The Jakarta Globe