Sweet Success for Women in Papua New Guinea

Euphimea Leahy is making a cake. She’s peering into a deep bowl in a dog-themed apron protecting her filmy blue chiffon dress. “Here’s 185 grams of butter we have to chuck in,” she narrates. “Now, my eggs go in. I mix self-rising flour and cocoa, and I’ve got a rich chocolate cake.”

Later, she will let the confection cool before slathering it with icing. It’s a mere 90 degrees that day in Port Moresby, the capital city of Papua New Guinea (PNG), so the icing should stay relatively intact, cooled by Gulf of Papua sea breezes wafting through the apartment. 

Heat is a perennial concern for professional bakers like Leahy who create toothsome works of sugary art at home. On one particularly “hair-raising” 104-degree-day last year, when she was on assignment for the Bank of South Pacific, her black forest cake—an elegant, double-decker gateau made with chocolate cake, cherry syrup, cherries and whorls of whipped cream—began melting like snow in late spring.

Her son Clayton, one of her five grown children, admonished her to calm down—and then went downstairs to the garage, turned on his utility vehicle and cranked the air conditioning. Standing before the glacial blast, his mother finished layering the butter icing, whipped cream and chocolate flakes to elegant perfection in time for client pickup. 

“I have always loved cooking and baking,” Leahy explains, “food made with love.” Yet, despite accounting and administrative experience from running a water-delivery business with her ex-husband, she didn’t have the confidence to strike out on her own and pursue her dream of founding a cake-making business—because her then-husband was a verbally abusive philanderer who hammered away at her self-esteem until she was paralyzed with self-doubt.

“Words can damage you mentally,” says Leahy, who is now proprietor of Ufi’s Cakes. “I lost myself.” 

Euphimea Leahy (Tallulah Photography)

Her journey back began after she left her husband, when one of Leahy’s daughters urged her to “get out and attend classes” at the Women’s Business Resource Centre (WBRC) in Port Moresby, PNG’s capital.

Created in late 2016 by the Washington-based Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE), the international affiliate of the United States Chamber of Commerce, and supported by the Australian and Papua New Guinea governments, WBRC’s mandate is to nurture entrepreneurialism in women. The initiative’s work included creating the Papua New Guinea Women’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry and partnering with the William Davidson Institute at the University of Michigan to develop entrepreneurship curriculum for PNG universities. 

WBRC’s program manager Margaret Aila says that, to date, more than 1,000 women have also benefitted from the center’s training and mentorship program—which offers classes on minutiae including how to register a business and file taxes and makes free childcare available for busy mothers who want access. A variety of business ideas have been developed by WBRC’s participants: sewing and tailoring services, import and export programs for products like coffee and the creation of beauty products like coconut oil.

PNG—long isolated due to formidable, untraversable mountain geography and rainforests and populated by hundreds of different tribal groups—is a place where women are still viewed as mothers, gardeners and haulers of wood and water. Men traditionally fish, hunt, fight and rule over households. It’s also considered by Human Rights Watch (HRW) to be one of the worst places in the world to be a woman.

Aila, dressed in a maroon dress with ruffles on the wrists and neckline and sensible, low-heel shoes, explains that a key component of WBRC is building women’s confidence—but although the program is changing women’s lives in urban Port Moresby, shifting the attitudes of men is another challenge.

“What we’re finding is that when women are doing business training their husbands don’t support them,” she tells Ms. “They follow them here to make sure it’s a woman-only space.” Aila later remarks that PNG’s deep-seated cultural attitudes towards women must somehow change. “Men tend to have dominance; women then believe growing up that they are inferior,” she explains. “We need to shift that belief because the belief creates the reality.”  

Helping women become entrepreneurs is vital to gender equality, the economic advancement of women and, consequently, PNG itself.

A majority of women in PNG experience rape or assault sometime in their lifetime; HRW also reports that police and prosecutors rarely pursue criminal charges against family-violence perpetrators, even in cases of attempted murder, serious injury or repeated rape. 

Women are especially vulnerable to domestic abuse because of their financial dependence upon men; according to data from the PNG NGO Morobe Development Foundation, which undertakes micro-business creation for PNG women, they have lower literacy rates than men and hold few skills of economic value.

Edward Aila, who is trained in a form of psychotherapy that connects neurological processes, language and behavior called neuro-linguistic programming, recently lectured 15 women ranging in age from their early twenties to their sixties on business deportment at the WBRC. During his presentation, Aila took the women through a variety of confidence-building exercises; at the end of class, he gave them homework.

“Tell yourself how powerful you are,” he instructed them. “Say it over and over again. Tell yourself 100 times a day that you are powerful. The voice in your head had been conditioned to tell yourself that you’re not good enough.” 

Judy Selisi, who has been stymied in her ambition to launch an essential oils business due to self-doubt, was inspired by Aila’s lecture. “You can do what you want at any age,” she realized. “He has given us the tools.” 

Her sister, Elsie, is interested in starting a vegan food business due to PNG’s high rate of lifestyle-type diseases like Type 2 diabetes and heart disease—and has discovered a newfound self-confidence following Aila’s lecture. Now, she’s enthusiastically optimistic. “He has given us the pointers to do it,” Elsie confesses. “I know we can.” 

About

Roberta Staley is an award-winning author, magazine writer and editor and documentary filmmaker who reports from the developing world, including Afghanistan, El Salvador, Papua New Guinea, Kenya, Cambodia, Colombia and Haiti. Aside form her current role as editor-in-chief of Enterprise magazine, Roberta has also written a biography about Afghan-Canadian Mozhdah Jamalzadah. Titled Voice of Rebellion, the book charts Mozhdah's incredible journey, including arriving in Canada as a child refugee, setting her father's protest poem to music (and making it a #1 hit), performing that song for Michelle and Barack Obama, and, finally, being invited to host her own show in Afghanistan. The Mozhdah Show earned her the nickname "The Oprah of Afghanistan" and tackled taboo subjects like divorce and domestic violence for the first time in the country's history.