Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, December 7, 2016 – The sport of volleyball wants to scour Papua New Guinea searching for talent. The international charity WaterAid wants to reach remote areas with its sanitation and disease control program. They have formed an unlikely but inspiring partnership.
In many cultures, it is perhaps the greatest taboo. An entirely natural process and a regular part of life for most women in PNG, and yet it is robbing many of them the opportunity to participate fully in society. Some women are missing a week of school or work every month because they feel cultural pressure to be ‘invisible’ while menstruating.
International charity WaterAid believes it can improve the lives of those women with its Water Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) program, which also introduces communities to a range of disease control measures.
But tackling such a taboo subject is not easy. It requires not only a frank and personal engagement from women, but a desire for change in men as well. Enter volleyball.
At first glance an unlikely weapon in the battle for social change, but the logic is impeccable.
“All the places you go to, there is always a volleyball net and there is always two posts standing there somewhere,” explains Leentje Be’soer, Volleyball Co-ordinator with the WaterAid WASH Sport for Development Program.
It is, in other words, a place where men respect the contribution of women without question. “On the court, the men won’t say that the woman cannot play,” affirms Leentje.
And so that space is where the conversation will start. The remote East Sepik Province is the first target region for the WASH Volleyball program, where respected players will share skills and attempt to convince locals that women need not be ostracised during their period.
For volleyball, the possibilities are endless. They have the chance to further instil a love of the game across PNG, scout for talent for their elite development programs, and create local heroes that will inspire future generations of players.
“You go to any rural areas, you will see it being played,” confirms Bernard Alu, outgoing President of the PNG Volleyball Federation (PNGVF).
Neither WaterAid nor the sport has any illusions about the magnitude of the task they face. To succeed, they must first travel to some of the most remote places on the planet, then gain the trust of the rural people, who are often suspicious of outsiders.
Then they must engage with them about a subject rarely, if ever, spoken about publicly and get both men and women long set in their ways to agree to, and then enact, change.
But a fuller participation by women and girls in the life will pay an enormous social, economic, health and education dividend.
Leentje laughs as she recalls her efforts on the volleyball court in her home village. “Back at home, I stand at the end of the court. If the ball goes up I can play it, but if they spike it I just give space,” she says with a self-deprecating chortle.
She is clearly far more determined when it comes to improving the lives of women across PNG, and is armed not only with a powerful spike but the entire game of volleyball in her quest for victory.
Remark: This story was produced by ABC International Development as part of the Pacific Sports Partnership funded by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.