Sport Makes Women Strong In Papua New Guinea

Working as a journalist for many years, Joanna Lester had always been keen to participate in the Australian Volunteers program. It was just a case of waiting for the right assignment. 

“I had a few friends and colleagues who’d been on the program, and I knew that they’d spent extended amounts of time overseas doing fascinating things. When the Media and Communications Adviser position with the National Rugby League (NRL) in Papua New Guinea (PNG) came up for 2014-15, it suited me perfectly,” she says.

Once in PNG, Joanna worked closely with female rugby league players and arrived to find there was “definitely a good foundation for the women’s league, and their stories were being told. It was just a question of getting those important stories out there more,” she says.

Rugby league is PNG’s national sport, but also a male-dominated activity. As such, Joanna says that rugby league, and sport more generally, plays a huge role in increasing gender equality in the country:

“For the public to see women participating in sport, it’s a subtle reminder in everyday life that women can do things that have traditionally favoured men. And sport is a great way to get that message across.”

PNG rugby league officials began the process of setting up and selecting the country's first national women's rugby league team and, in August 2017, the team was named the PNG Orchids.

In 2017, the Orchids secured a spot in the Women’s Rugby League World Cup in Australia. Seeing the capacity for this accomplishment to initiate significant cultural and social change in PNG, Joanna commenced work on a documentary covering the Orchid’s journey.

“My female colleagues—the players—became central characters because they played in the team that made it to the Rugby League World Cup. It couldn’t have happened without those people and events. It was an opportunity to do something much bigger with the stories of women in PNG,” says Joanna.

Although Joanna had significant experience as a video journalist, she had never worked with film, nor taken on senior, leading positions such as director and producer. But Joanna found there were benefits to being new to these roles, that helped propel the film forward.

“I think the main benefit of coming to the project without a filmmaking background was the funding and supporters we managed to secure. They were totally different because we were coming at it from an international development perspective. I approached the likes of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and the United States Embassy, and this helped determine how much potential the film had as a community development tool. We saw the bigger picture with this project, and how it would be used widely. Outreach in PNG was always in mind when creating the documentary,” says Joanna.

The documentary is titled Power Marys, an English interpretation of ‘paua meri’, meaning ‘strong women’ in Tok Pisin, one of PNG's official languages. Joanna and her team are currently pitching the documentary to international broadcasters and film festivals, hoping for extensive screenings in 2018.

Currently, Joanna is working as a reporter for the Commonwealth Games, running from April 4 to April 15 in the Gold Coast. While Joanna has worked at Games for many years, she says that her volunteer assignment is helping add depth to the event’s coverage of PNG.

“I made a point of ensuring my colleagues covering PNG have got the information they need to cover the events thoroughly and in a way that benefits the international community,” she says.

Additionally, volunteering as NRL PNG’s Media and Communications Adviser helped Joanna grow personally, fulfilling a key aim of the Australian Volunteers program.

“The result of the assignment for me was that I completely changed direction with what I was doing. I moved from journalism to international development then into project management and documentary making,” she says.

Joanna adds that maintaining relationships with her colleagues in PNG has been critical to achieving goals and ensuring ongoing positive outcomes.

“It’s now been three-and-a-half years since I did my assignment. You realise that 12 months is actually not a long time in which to really have an impact. I don’t think my colleagues and I could have ended up doing what we did without an ongoing commitment and relationship with each other,” she concludes.