Amid the global pandemic of COVID19 and Coronavirus, I’m thinking back on a great experience I had a couple of weeks ago – when we were just starting to live the consequences of the pandemic which has since derailed our lives.

I was lucky to join two incredibly powerful women on a mission to Papua New Guinea (PNG) on the occasion of International Women’s Day: the United Nations’ Deputy Secretary-General Amina J. Mohammed and the Head of UN Aids, Winnie Byanyima. This was a fantastic opportunity to bring a spotlight to young women’s leadership and advocate for the end of violence against women and girls everywhere!


Just after our arrival on the morning of 8th of March, we were joined by thousands of passionate activists for a – very, very early – morning walk through the capital Port Moresby with the local Governor. Surrounded by beautiful rolling hills, we walked hand in hand towards the rising sun, united by one intention: taking action to eliminate gender bias and violence, for an equal society.


After the walk, we joined  a dialogue on UN75 with young people from all parts of Papua New Guinea who shared their concerns and hopes for the future of their country, the United Nations, and the world. Even though young people make up 60% of the country’s population, PNG’s youth are reported to be the least engaged in development discussions and opportunities, leaving the bulk of their potential untapped. Many young Papuans face challenges such as the diminishing of opportunities in formal education and employment. In our discussion they voiced their concerns and wished for more resources to position themselves at the forefront of PNG’s development. Young people must be provided with more opportunities to influence decision-making.


I was also pleased to meet with Mr James Marape, Prime Minister of PNG. We discussed how young people’s representation and leadership is essential to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, and our commitment to support young Papuans of all genders in seeing their potential fully realized.


Our delegation has the pleasure of commuting with local women on the Meri Seif Bus. It was such a lively journey filled with cheerful songs that reflected their optimistic attitude and enthusiasm for life. This bus – only for women and children and operated by a female driver – is an excellent means to provide safe transportation to children, women and girls on their way to home, work and school. Such facilities are important, as it means women and girls can travel safely without being affected by violence and harassment.


At Gordon market – the largest and most modern open market in the South Pacific – I was honoured to witness the launch of the Spotlight Initiative in PNG. Spotlight is a partnership between the European Union and the United Nations to eliminate all forms of violence against women and girls by 2030. By putting a spotlight on violence against women and girls, one of the most widespread, persistent and devastating human rights violations in our world, we will end violence against women, today is experienced in the lifetime of one out of three women.


I was lucky to get the chance to sit with human rights defenders from all over PNG, learning about their tireless fight to make the country more equal, just and free of violence. Even though many have been threatened with harm, attacked and intimidated, these activists have never given up striving for the rights of the vulnerable, such as women and people living with HIV. Their efforts to uphold human rights and end gender-based violence are fundamental to ensure young women and girls can realize their leadership potential in the future.


On the evening 8 March, prominent women from all walks of life attended the official International Women’s Day dinner hosted by Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr Patrick Pruaitch. What a night to celebrate the power of girls and women in Papua New Guinea and beyond! “Each for Equal” – every one of us, men and women alike, have the responsibility to create an equal society.


My second day in PNG started with a visit to the Begabari Clinic with the Head of UN AIDS and the Deputy Secretary-General of the UN. We spoke with HIV outreach workers about mapping HIV hotspots and the challenges they face, and I learned about the impressive efforts invested by them leading HIV response in the community.


In a townhall meeting with all UN staff in PNG, I conveyed the message that to deliver on the Decade of Action, the UN must be accessible, diverse and innovative. This requires more youth leadership across the organization and a greater impact of the UN in the lives of young people around the world. My recipe? We must implement and realise #Youth2030, the United Nations Youth Strategy!


I was surprised to learn that PNG is one of the last 3 countries in the whole world which does not have any female representation in the parliament. I’m even more astounded having met some of the women active in the country’s politics – such courageous and ambitious women who are fighting for a seat at the table. I was moved and inspired by their efforts to promote women’s political status in PNG. Even in places that do not have conducive environments for equal participation, there are still role models for young women to look up to.


For dinner, I joined the members of the Young Professionals Network. We had a great discussion on the pioneering role of young entrepreneurs in catalysing positive change and private sectors’ participation in supporting development in their country.


Together with the Deputy Secretary-General, I spent a day in the province of Hela in the Highlands of PNG for a regional launch of the Spotlight Initiative and the launch of an initiative to support school tuition there. Amongst other engagements, met with the community of young people in Hela and we had a thought-provoking discussion on the young peacebuilders’ role in facilitating peace processes and the development of the region.


Back in the capital, we visited the Port Moresby Nature Park to learn about climate change mitigation efforts in PNG. It was great to witness and learn about the amazing biodiversity of the country and young Papuans’ action to respond to the climate emergency.


Although we had a packed schedule, I managed to meet with young people from organizations like Transparency International PNG, The Voice Inc. and Equal Playing Field. They told me about their work to fight corruption, empower other young people to lead and prevent violence against women and girls.


I also met with Mr Joe Itaki, the Director-General of Youth Development Authority and Ms Anna Kavana Bais, the Secretary for Community Development, Religion & Youth, and discussed how the United Nations can support strong structures and a vibrant youth sector in the country.


My last day in PNG started with an in-depth interview with the Tribe 93FM morning show, in which I talked about my responsibilities as the UN Youth Envoy, my observations from the visit in PNG, and ways in which young people can catalyse the development of the country when supported and given the space. Following that, I was excited meeting ChildFund and YWCA of PNG to learn about their great work on youth, peace and protection!


Before leaving, my last stop was the Jubilee Catholic Secondary School where UN Women and UNFPA are implementing the SanapWantaim Campaign (the new normal), which wants to build resilient communities, safe for women and girls. The bright smiles and contagious energy from the students reinforced my belief that the young people of Papua New Guinea are its greatest asset towards a sustainable, prosperous and equal future.


Although my stay in PNG was short, it made me feel close to home. Not only because of the culture and the people, but also because many of the challenges I saw – from peace and security, gender inequality, and development challenges – resemble a situation I know from my home country. I am convinced that to achieve an equal society, we need a government that is committed to ending gender-based violence; a vibrant civil society; and young people who are leading the charge. Gender equality is no longer a choice; it is a must, and I feel privileged to have met people throughout PNG who are fighting for change.