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Building Inclusive Communities in PNG's Sandaun

10 January 2018   |   Commentary   |   By Sophie Jenkins

Sophie Jenkins from Mary MacKillop International reflects on her experiences working with civil society organisations in PNG's Sandaun Province, helping to promote disability inclusion in communities and villages.

Willie Akela with fellow volunteers Anna and Esther.
Photo: Sophie Jenkins.
Willie Akela with fellow volunteers Anna and Esther.

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    I first travelled to Papua New Guinea in February 2016 to explore opportunities for Mary MacKillop International (MMI) to begin programming in partnership with locally-led organisations working in our program areas of education, health and livelihoods. On that initial trip, I was struck by the passionate and diverse civil society sector that exists in PNG, and had the privilege of meeting with a range of dedicated organisations working to address some of the most significant development challenges facing the country.

    One such organisation was the Callan Vanimo Inclusive Education Resource Centre (Callan Vanimo IERC), one of 19 centres within the Callan Network established to promote disability inclusion in education, health and all aspects of community life.  Our partnership with Callan Vanimo had a rather unconventional beginning, coming about as the result of word of mouth introductions, fortuitous scheduling, and the fact that our car happened to break down outside the centre as we drove passed on a Sunday afternoon! Despite our insistences that the staff continue to enjoy their weekend, the whole team suddenly assembled and we found ourselves having an impromptu meeting as the local mechanic (along with a sudden crowd of children) tinkered away on the car. 

    During this meeting, we were given our first real insight into the reality of life for people with disability in Papua New Guinea. It is estimated that there are close to 1 million people with disability in Papua New Guinea, of which the National Disability Resource and Advocacy Centre estimate only 2 per cent are currently receiving adequate services. Despite government efforts to prioritise disability inclusion, reflected in the revision of the National Policy on Disability in 2015, a range of barriers still exist that prevent the full participation of people with disability in society. Service providers, representative organisations and people with disability who we have engaged with through our work suggest that the prevalence of discriminatory attitudes towards disability is a key challenge which remains present in many parts of the country, leading to continued exclusion, marginalisation and neglect. In rural communities this exclusion can be even more acute given the significant physical barriers including the challenging geographical landscape, poorly maintained roads and inaccessible public transport.

    CBR Volunteer conducting community-based assessment. Photo: Sophie Jenkins.

    CBR Volunteer conducting community-based assessment. Photo: Sophie Jenkins.

    To address these challenges, Callan Vanimo IERC hoped to train local volunteers in Community-Based Rehabilitation (CBR) to expand the program’s reach into rural and very remote communities. CBR is an approach to community development, poverty alleviation, service delivery and rights awareness which encompasses five core components; education, health, empowerment, social inclusion and livelihoods. As an adaptable, community-driven and cost-effective approach, CBR is considered the most effective approach to disability inclusion in countries that may lack the resources and infrastructure to provide centralised programs, and as such has been identified as a key strategy within PNG’s revised National Disability Policy. We immediately saw an opportunity for collaboration with Callan Vanimo IERC to support the strengthening and expansion of the volunteer-led CBR program. Over the proceeding months, we worked alongside the centre staff, existing volunteers and local communities to develop a program which aims to identify and train over 50 CBR volunteers by 2020, who would in turn engage over 500 people with disability through regular CBR activities throughout the Vanimo district.  

    I travelled back to Vanimo in August 2017 to meet with Callan Vanimo IERC staff and volunteers as we came to the end of the first year of our partnership. During this visit, I met one of the youngest volunteers, Willie Akela, a 21-year-old man with a hearing impairment who started volunteering at the centre after receiving support from Callan throughout his schooling. Willie now works alongside 3 other volunteers in his community to support people with disability in accessing health and education services. Importantly, Willie has helped to design and implement several community awareness events, challenging misconceptions around disability from a health and human rights perspective. 

    Willie Akela with fellow volunteers Anna and Esther. Photo: Sophie Jenkins.

    Willie Akela with fellow volunteers Anna and Esther. Photo: Sophie Jenkins.

    Willie told me: “I am very proud and happy to be working as a Community-Based Rehabilitation volunteer, and as a person with a disability, I am looking forward to learning more and helping others like me – in believing that there is hope for us all, that we too have the rights to enjoy everything in life like every other person.” To me, this statement illustrates the importance of programs like this which create a central role for people with disability, their families and entire communities in leading processes of change. After just one year, these remarkable volunteers have identified over 500 people with disability or temporary impairment, have enabled over 40 people to access life-changing cataract surgery and conducted 10 community awareness events in villages around Vanimo. For MMI, the first year of our engagement in PNG has been a time of significant learning and growth, and we feel privileged to have been able to play a role in these achievements.


    Sophie Jenkins is the International Programs Officer at Mary MacKillop International (MMI), and coordinates their programs in Papua New Guinea. MMI is the overseas aid and development agency of the Sisters of Saint Joseph. MMI launched their PNG program in June 2016, continuing the legacy of the Sisters of Saint Joseph who lived and worked in Papua New Guinea from the 1960s-1990s. MMI works in partnership with Callan Vanimo Inclusive Education Resource Centre (Callan Vanimo IERC) and Buk bilong Pikinini to promote disability inclusion and early childhood education in remote communities in the Vanimo-Green district, Sandaun Province. To learn more about the work of MMI in Papua New Guinea, contact Sophie Jenkins at sophie.jenkins@mmi.org.au or visit the MMI website at www.mmi.org.au