i=Change partners with major fashion brands to fund development projects. Here, CEO Jeremy Meltzer takes readers behind the scenes of his latest expedition with UN Women in Papua New Guinea.
On the doorstep of Australia, Papua New Guinea is the most linguistically diverse place on earth, where nearly 850 different languages are spoken. There are tribes in the highlands so remote that the arrival of white people - as we experienced two weeks ago - creates quite a stir.
Only 13% of the country is electrified, leaving over 6m people living by kerosene lamps and open fires to cook. “What we do have”, a village elder told me, “is community. We have many challenges and few things. We rely on each other for survival”.
We flew from Port Moresby to Garoka with the UN Women team, a small security detail and a plan to visit a remote shelter for abused women in the highlands. Bundled into jeeps over potholed roads, we were soon careening amongst mountains that spanned the horizon, and jungles a thousand shades of green.
Arriving at a small community we were met by laughing children and told this was the first time they had ever met foreigners.
Our smiles quickly faded as we were ushered into a bamboo hut in a hidden location, where women come to escape violent relationships.
The Papua New Guinean Highlands is an epicentre for violence against women. If the global average is 1 in 3 women experience violence in their lifetime, in the Highlands over 90% of women experience violence as “daily business”, Eriko tells us, the Director of the Kaffe Urban Settlers Women’s Association, as she looks sadly into the distance.
Sorcery is also practiced. When an old person dies, a woman in the community is often blamed. She will then be captured and tortured or killed to appease the spirits.
PNG is also the second most dangerous country in the world in which to give birth. If a woman cannot access a supervised birth, she has a 1 in 24 chance of dying in childbirth, second only to Sierra Leone at 1 in 17.
The risk for women in Australia is 1 in 20,000.
It’s for reasons like this we have partnered with Australian retailers and fashion brands, with a tech platform that makes it simple to give back.
Through this, we have helped fund the work of UN Women for several years, and the work of Dr Barry through Send Hope Not flowers.
Dr Barry flies his small seaplane, helping women in remote communities give birth safely. He distributes baby bundles from his plane; some nappies, wipes, a swaddle and a few dollars to help a woman make the trip to a clinic. A baby bundle costs $28. In the communities where Dr Barry has gifted them, infant and maternal death has decreased up to 78%.
Dr Glen Mola, another Australian, has lived and worked in PNG for over 40 years. A professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Dr Glen has taught almost every doctor and midwife in PNG how to help women give birth safely in remote, low resource settings.
When we meet Dr Glen at the Port Moresby General Hospital, I struggle to keep pace as he shows us around the hospital grounds. Jacaranda trees bloom outside a faded colonial wooden building, while women wait patiently inside to give birth.
Although in his mid-seventies, Dr Glen’s passion belies his age. “There’s still so much to do”, he tells me. “There are entire provinces effectively without any maternal health services”. This leaves women to give birth at home, where the slightest complication can take their life.
We witness this in the highlands. Cristina is 9 months pregnant with her third baby. She has just walked two hours in the heat up and down a mountain to visit what was described as a ‘maternal health clinic’.
We later visit this clinic. The effect when entering was visceral and immediate. One bed looking like it had never been cleaned, sat waiting in the dark. Blood-soaked forceps lay in a bowl of rusty water. The clinic has no running water, electricity, or sterilisation.
A sense of hopelessness hung in the air. We met a local midwife who sadly explained, “I do what I can with what I have”.
What can we do?
I am reminded of Gandhi’s call to arms, ‘to be the change’. We have adapted it to ‘you can be the change, when you shop for change’, by making it simple for consumers to shop their values, and for brands to give back and accelerate their sustainability journey.
From Australian brands, we have raised over $293,208 and counting for UN Women and over $64,725 for Send Hope Not Flowers, which has together impacted the lives of up to 50,000 women.
Yet as Dr Glen says, in a country where a small amount of money goes a long way, “there are still hundreds of thousands of women in need of support”.
It was an honour to witness the impact th ese funds are having on the lives of women and girls in one of our closest Pacific neighbours. I find it hard to come home. I can’t ‘unsee’ what I’ve seen, so I feel galvanised to continue growing our small dent in the universe. It’s an exciting – and critical time – for us all to play our part.
Story and images by Jeremy Meltzer