In ‘Field Notes’ we invite Australian and Papua New Guinean researchers and practitioners to tell us about their work and how it has helped to build relationships between individuals and institutions.

The Kapul Champions represent sexually diverse men in PNG. Photo: Angela Kelly-Hanku

The Sexual and Reproductive Health Unit (SRHU) at the Papua New Guinea Institute of Medical Research is currently undertaking a number of exciting social research projects in the area of sexuality, gender minorities, people living with HIV and the law. These programs of research are funded by the Government of PNG and are being implemented in partnership with UNSW in Sydney, Australia, namely Scientia Professor Peter Aggleton and Professor Heather Worth.

One such study, Sexuality, health and human rights of transgender women and sexually diverse men, involves collecting the life histories of these often marginalised and invisible Papua New Guineans. The project seeks to understand experiences across the lifespan including in childhood, relationships, and health & wellbeing. The approach adopted is somewhat new for PNG research and moves beyond traditional enquiry with these communities, which has historically sought to understand and quantify risk for HIV and other Sexually Transmitted Infections (STI).

In addition to life histories, we have requested gender and sexual minorities to identify and share an ‘object’ of importance to them. This innovative approach is part of an agenda to develop an emerging material and visual culture of these largely unrecognised citizens of Papua New Guinea. The objects people have brought to share and have photographed have been wide ranging and included mobile phones which connect people with others, jewellery given by loved ones including parents, lovers and friends, HIV treatments and, for one person, a booklet outlining the rights of sexually diverse men and transgender women in PNG.

A booklet outlining the rights of sexually diverse men (Photo: Supplied, Angela Kelly-Hanku).

The research project has already strengthened the capacity of a number of PNG social researchers on matters pertaining to sexual and gender minorities, while at the same time has consolidated the partnership between the SRHU and Kapul Champions, the representative body of sexually diverse men and transgender people in the country.  The success of this research (and all our projects) lies in the relationships we have with key affected populations, particularly people who sell and exchange sex, sexually diverse men, transgender persons, and people living with HIV. Our work is grounded in understanding the lives of those we seek to work with and mutual respect for each other. Where possible we bring this partnership together through collective publications as evident in a Special Issue of Human Rights Defender published to coincide with the recent International AIDS Conference (Kelly-Hanku et al 2014).

Through this program of research we have contributed to the research capacity of emerging Papua New Guinean leaders in social research and are actively contributing to a broader and more holistic understanding of PNG for its own citizens and those of neighbouring countries, especially Australia. This partnership has ensured world-class rigor to research design and analysis and has strengthened the institutional ties between the PNG IMR and UNSW in relation to research in this field. On a personal note, the partnerships have broadened the understanding of global sexualities and gender minorities for all, albeit in different ways.

Kapul Champions made a declaration at the National Forum on Creating an Enabling Environment for Key Affected Populations held in the nation’s capital on November 24 .  This highlighted the importance of key objectives: to be valued as citizens of Papua New Guinea; to enjoy freely and safely the benefits of the country and; to be involved in the establishment of an enabling environment to bring about an end to HIV. Through the research partnership with Kapul Champions and our ongoing research, we hope that as the leading national research institute dedicated to health and medical research, IMR can play its role in advancing the health of all Papua New Guineans.

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About the Authors

Ruthy Neo - Papua New Guinea Institute of Medical Research - Lowy Institute

Ruthy Neo

Papua New Guinea Institute of Medical Research

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Ruthy Neo is Project Coordinator in Sexuality, Health & Human Rights, and Scientific Officer in Social & Behavioural Research in the Sexual & Reproductive Health Unit at the Papua New Guinea Institute of Medical Research.


Angela Kelly-Hanku - Papua New Guinea Institute of Medical Research - Lowy Institute

Angela Kelly-Hanku

Papua New Guinea Institute of Medical Research

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Angela Kelly-Hanku is Head, Social & Behavioural Research, Sexual & Reproductive Health Unit, Papua New Guinea Institute of Medical Research and Senior Research Fellow, School of Public Health & Community Medicine, UNSW, Australia.