Sexualities, Sexual Rights and HIV in PNG and the Pacific

Report by Dr Katherine Lepani and Professor Margaret Jolly.

For three intensive days from July 11-13, a congregation of fifty-three scholars, activists, policy-makers, and practitioners met at ANU to exchange perspectives and engage in discussion on Sexualities, Sexual Rights and HIV in Papua New Guinea and the Pacific. This workshop symposium was conjointly convened by Professor Gilbert Herdt and Dr Katherine Lepani as part of the ARC Laureate Project led by Professor Margaret Jolly, Engendering Persons, Transforming Things. The event received support from the ANU Research School of Asia and the Pacific (RSAP), the AusAID International Seminar Support Scheme (ISSS), and the United Nations Development Programme Pacific Centre in Suva, Fiji. Professor Herdt’s intellectual leadership for the workshop symposium ermerged as a key activity during his two-month visit at ANU, under the RSAP Distinguished Visitor Program.

Participants at the workshop symposium came from Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Solomons, Vanuatu, the Cook Islands, Nauru, New Zealand, France, Canada and Australia. Governments, NGOs, advocacy groups, and churches were represented including the PNG National Aids Council Secretariat, Solomon Islands National AIDS Council, New Zealand AIDS Foundation, PNG Institute of Medical Research, UNAIDS PNG, UNDP Pacific Centre, Secretariat of the Pacific Community Regional Rights Resource Team, Pacific Islands AIDS Foundation, Igat Hope PNG, Fiji Network for People Living with HIV, Pacific Sexual Diversity Network, Wan Smol Bag Theatre, Pacific Counselling and Social Services, Caritas Australia, ChildFund Australia, Pacific Friends of the Global Fund, the National Catholic AIDS Office in PNG, and the Seventh Day Adventist and Anglican churches.

Professor Emeritus Susan Kippax of UNSW and Professor Gary Dowsett of La Trobe, respectively, both eminent social scientists and experts on sexuality and HIV, were the invited discussants for the workshop symposium. Dame Carol Kidu, former member of the PNG Parliament and a tireless advocate for human rights and law reform in PNG and the Pacific, provided reflective comments on advocacy and law reform processes in a special session on the first day that focused on Homosexuality Laws and Law Reform in the Pacific. Stuart Watson, UNAIDS Coordinator for PNG, provided a remarkable commentary on emerging themes of the third day.

The workshop was a model of open exchange and dialogue between diverse people, places and perspectives, including controversial issues, such as the influence of religiosity on sexual expression in the Pacific Islands. The format involved twenty-eight short plenary presentations in nine thematic sessions, allowing ample time for discussion and debate. Innovative new insights were developed about:

  • Patterns of stigma, discrimination and violence against women, sexual minorities and people living with HIV in the Pacific;
  • The  persistence of punitive laws, many dating from the colonial period criminalizing sodomy and sex work and the urgent need for law reform
  • The prominent role of Christian churches in both the prevention and treatment of HIV and the increasing conjunction of biomedical and faith-based healing
  • The crucial advocacy role of organizations representing women and sexual minorities and people living with HIV in defending human rights.

Evaluations of the workshop were overwhelmingly positive, with many participants suggesting it marked a watershed moment in mutual understandings. The projected outcomes include ongoing collaboration in research and practice, a series of scholarly articles, and planned publication of some of the insights gained from the symposium.

You may download the program and abstracts for the workshop symposium.

Integral to the program was a public lecture by distinguished anthropologist Professor Gilbert Herdt, From Ritual Sex to Sexual Individuality: Tradition and Modernity in Sambia Sexual Culture, which attracted a packed audience. The lecture explored the profound transformations in sexual culture and gender relations among people in the Eastern Highlands of PNG since his first fieldwork in the 1970s: the end of initiations which made boys into mature, heterosexual men and warriors through practices of insemination, the reduced separation of men and women and changing notions of female pollution and male domination. Pervasive conversion to Seventh Day Adventist Christianity has catalysed new forms of intimate cohabitation and desire in marriages with enhanced female autonomy and a parallel denial of homosexual practice as both un-Christian and foreign. This lecture will form part of his forthcoming book The Singers are Gone. The Public Lecture was co-sponsored by the ARC Laureate Project, the RSAP Distinguished Visitor Program, and the ANU Gender Institute.

Prior to Professor Herdt’s lecture, Dr Nicole George of the University of Queensland launched the new ANU E-Press book, Engendering Violence in Papua New Guinea edited by Margaret Jolly and Christine Stewart with Carolyn Brewer. Amongst the large crowd who celebrated was Dame Carol Kidu, to whom the book is dedicated. It is available as a free download at or in hard copy from ANU E-Press.

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