Local women lead fight against COVID-19 in PNG and Bougainville

COVID-19 is threatening the lives of Papua New Guinea and Bougainville’s population. With only 500 doctors and 5000 hospital beds for the country’s nine million people and high levels of community transmission, the pandemic has had a devastating impact on people’s lives. With the support of the Australian Humanitarian Partnership (AHP), a new project is supporting local women leaders to reduce community transmission of COVID-19 and help protect families against the threat of the pandemic. 


 The ‘Meri Gat Pawa, Meri Gat Infomesen’ project (“MGI”) is a joint initiative of ActionAid Australia, the Shifting the Power Coalition (STPC), and STPC members – the Nazareth Centre for Rehabilitation (NCfR) in Bougainville and YWCA Papua New Guinea. The project is driving locally led and inclusive COVID-19 response across Papua New Guinea and Bougainville. MGI is not only about saving lives but also supports women, young women and women with disabilities to determine and drive the best and most inclusive response to the pandemic. This is even more critical because PNG is a country where there are no women in national parliament.   

 The project has enabled 15 local women leaders to use their local knowledge and expertise to develop lifesaving COVID-19 health messages. The messages have focused on enhancing COVID-19 awareness and prevention and addressing vaccine hesitancy. 

 Agnes Titus, Advocacy Coordinator for NCfR and STPC focal point was the first woman in Bougainville to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.  

 Agnes is supporting the implementation of the project in Bougainville, and when asked about the project she emphasised that, “it’s important that women are involved in the project and passing the information because it is women whose laps everything falls onto. They will ensure that there is water to wash hands and water to boil to steam for sick children.  

 “Especially being mothers, at least they will pass that information onto their children. And being community people, that information will go through the whole extended family and all through the village.” 

 “We believe that women can lead, women can be part of the solution. When women are involved, we know for certain that many more people will get that information.” 

 MGI leaders draw on priority issues identified through community consultations on how COVID-19 is impacting women and communities. Identified issues have included the exacerbation of pre-existing gender inequality such as violence against women, and the additional burden of care and livelihoods. 

 “Misinformation is the biggest challenge we are facing here in Bougainville. The situation is serious and accurate information is not reaching remote communities. As women leaders we have an important role to play,” adds Titus. 

The messages are distributed in local languages via SMS through Digicel’s mobile phone network – a model that builds on ActionAid and STPC’s work in Vanuatu and Fiji to use mobile technology to lead early warning and COVID-19 prevention efforts. 

So far, more than 5 million SMS on COVID-19 prevention and human rights have reached Digicel subscribers in PNG’s National Capital District and Bougainville, as well as nine other provinces.   

 The initiative is working closely with the PNG Department of Health’s Risk Communications and Community Engagement Committee to align with government-led public health messaging, as well as the broader Australian Humanitarian Partnership priorities in PNG, which is working to support communities to be disaster ready. 

 This women-led COVID-19 response is successfully using technology to amplify women’s voice and demands with a specific focus on addressing critical priorities for diverse young women including disability inclusion, violence prevention and the status of women.