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PAPUA NEW GUINEA: Let's talk about sex

Port Moresby, 9 February 2009 (IRIN) - Yangpela is Papua New Guinea's (PNG) only youth-friendly hotline, run by the sexual and reproductive health NGO, Marie Stopes, in a cramped office in the capital, Port Moresby.

Not quite knowing what burning question to ask, and feeling a bit of a fraud, IRIN/PlusNews dialled the toll-free number.

The phone was answered after just three rings. "I don't like using condoms," this reporter said. "Why?" came the gentle but unexpected reply. "Because they don't feel nice," I stammered. "If you don't like using condoms, then it's better you stick to one partner and you will be okay."

Colis Gamoga, the young man at the other end of the phone, was slick. The hotline, launched in September and supported by the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) gets about 17 calls a day, mostly young people anxious for information and advice. Over the course of his four-hour shift, Gamoga does his best to steer them right.

PNG has one of the highest prevalence rates of HIV and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in the Asia-Pacific region; a lack of awareness about safer sex, especially among the youth, is one of the contributory problems.

"All of this is preventable," said Jet Riparip, the head of Marie Stopes in PNG, "but there is a lack of correct information, and a lot of myths and rumours."

One common notion, for example, is that pregnancy occurs only after the sixth time of having sex with the same partner, so young people are advised by their peers and elders to change partners regularly.

"Basic facts about sex and reproduction remain widely misunderstood," notes an Asia Development Bank report. "However, monitoring what is being taught is essential, as copious examples are available of health educators and others in positions of 'authority' giving out incorrect information" to discourage "unwanted" behaviour.

Researchers note that pornography is readily available and shared among teens, from magazines to communal viewing of hardcore movies - not the most appropriate models for sex education.

Given PNG's difficult terrain, its deep valleys and forested highlands, many communities are isolated, and access to public health is a significant challenge. If the long walk to a clinic for a check-up or to treat an STI is not off-putting enough, a moralising attitude by medical staff can be the final deterrent to young people, as several studies have pointed out.

Christian churches play a powerful role in PNG, and some health workers reflect those values. "Some staff openly show youth that they do not approve of their life style, and respondents said youth believe they do not get proper treatment as a punishment," a Save the Children survey found.

''We have to survive. The boys turn to petty crime and the girls have to sell themselves. Everybody knows that''
The Marie Stopes centre includes a full-time doctor, and provides HIV and STI testing and counselling, but Riparip deliberately keeps the facility as low-key as possible. "We don't call it a clinic because we don't want people to be scared to enter our door ... The receptionist doesn't ask you why you are there, and we stress privacy and confidentiality."

Around 40 percent of PNG's population is of school-going age, but less than 15 percent are enrolled in secondary school - and only one-third of those pupils are girls, noted the Asian Development Bank report. The low rate of formal schooling complicates HIV awareness, and sharply increases the vulnerability of girls in particular.

Multiple-partner sex

Normally, HIV epidemics are centred on sex workers and their clients before expanding into the general population. But the combined prevalence of commercial, transactional and multiple-partner sex in PNG has meant that the general population has been exposed far faster, a UNICEF report points out.

A lack of job opportunities for women and the general cultural acceptance that men can have multiple partners narrows options and deepens dependency. "A small sample in Papua New Guinea shows that two in three women aged 15 to 24 accept cash or gifts in exchange for sex," the UNICEF study said.

A survey of child sexual exploitation in PNG included this testimony from a young girl: "We have to survive. The boys turn to petty crime and the girls have to sell themselves. Everybody knows that. That's why no one says anything and accepts the cash, food and other things that we can bring home."

The evidence of trans-generational sex is in the HIV statistics. According to the UNICEF report, "Twice as many girls and women between the ages of 15 and 29 are getting infected than boys and men of the same age, but more men than women above the age of 30 are acquiring the virus."

Widespread sexual violence is yet another factor in the vulnerability of women and young girls. The World Health Organization has said that nearly half of reported rape victims in PNG were under the age of 15, while 13 percent were under the age of seven.

The deep-seated poverty and violence confronting young people in PNG seems guaranteed to stifle any gains made in HIV prevention, but Gamoga and his Yangpela colleague, Idau Ghou, believe they make a difference each day - even if it is just to listen on the end of the phone, or to persuade a client to see a doctor and get a check up.   

"So many people text [SMS] back or call back and thank us for what we've done - they've been through medical treatment and are well now," Ghou told IRIN/PlusNews.

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Theme (s): Children, Prevention - PlusNews,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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