Vanuamai is a small village. Maybe 200 people. It’s in Central Province, Papua New Guinea, about two hours or more from Port Moresby. It should be closer but for the first hour out of Moresby, the Hiritano Highway is rough and deeply pot-holed. You need a 4WD.
Once across the Angabunga River, you can enjoy the well-sealed road through the Doa rubber plantation to Agaivaro. Then take a left-hand turn off the Highway and the narrow track to the village truly tests the capabilities of your vehicle.
Vanuamai Elementary School is on top of the hill – a little removed from the village, with the primary school close by. The school is like dozens of other elementary schools that I have stood in, all around Papua New Guinea.
The walls and roof are a mix of tin sheets and bush materials, an open doorway, open window frames, and a knee-high gap between the bottom of the walls and the earth floor. It’s airy. There are desks too. In most elementary schools, children sit on the floor.
Elementary teachers in PNG have (perhaps) Grade 10-level education, very little training and no resources to teach English which, at best, is their third language (after Tok Ples and Tok Pisin). It is not surprising that most children entering Grade 3 cannot read or write.
These children spend three years in elementary school (Prep, Grades One and Two) and Grade 3 teachers have to ‘start again’ and teach basic literacy skills. But in Vanuamai Elementary School, that is changing. Thanks to ChildFund.
I sat at the back of the Elementary 1 class. The teacher, Mr Francis Oa, smiled and introduced me to his students as ‘the author’ of their books: Mr Ray from Bilum Books. The class sang ‘Welcome Mr Ray’ in unison. There were about 20 students, a smaller class than most in PNG.
Elementary Schools, especially in urban areas, have enrolments of 60 and 70 and higher (per class) at each Grade level. Sometimes with three and four classes of that size per Grade level.
Mr Oa began his lesson: Term 3 Week 10. A one-hour lesson teaching English. He began with ‘Speaking and listening’. He had written the poem Off to Market on butcher paper:
* Warning this story contains distressing content. The names of the people involved have been changed to protect their identities.
Regina was 14 years old when she was sexually abused by a man in his 50s. He lured her with an equivalent of $215 to a hotel room in Port Moresby.
She left the room, distraught and alone, and feeling helpless. She needed the money to make ends meet and desperately wanted to finish school. When both her parents passed away, her older sister had neglected her.
The abuse continued on the weekends for three years. Each time, Regina was given money and made to promise she would not tell anyone.
Her school grades dropped, and she lost her appetite and her confidence. Eventually, she lost hope.
When Regina has flashbacks, she thinks of taking her own life. She had felt like there was no reason for living anymore.
It was only when staff from ChildFund’s 1-Tok Kaunselin Helpim Lain and Rights Respect and Resilience project visited her school that things changed.
The staff encouraged students to call the helpline if they encountered any violence, negligence or any form of abuse in their life.
For the first time in a long time, Regina felt a glimmer of hope. After the visit she called the hotline.
A counsellor named Joe answered, and Regina found herself in tears. It had been three years and it was only now that she finally felt safe to tell someone about all the pain she was carrying.
Joe affirmed her confidentiality and provided crisis counselling.
“I realised I had to help Regina externalise the problem and value her life and education,” Joe said.
“We discussed the importance of her health and I told her about her legal rights and provided information on referral pathways that were available to her.”
Counsellors at ChildFund’s 1-Tok Kaunselin Helpim Lain have been helping thousands of survivors of abuse, violence and neglect, like Regina, for three years. The 1-Tok Kaunselin Helpim Lain is Papua New Guinea’s first free national counselling helpline.
After Regina’s initial call, Joe checked on Regina every week and provided more counselling. He encouraged her to report the matter to police and to change her sim card so the perpetrator could no longer reach her.
Today, Regina is focused on finishing her studies and hopeful about her future.
The counselling helped her escape the abuse and recover emotionally, and is grateful for the hotline’s service and Joe’s commitment to helping turn her life around.
If you are in Papua New Guinea and need to talk to someone, call:
- 1-Tok Kaunselin Helpim Lain (toll-free) 7150 8000
If you are in Australia: