Send our bilums to the world

Normal, Weekender

The National, Friday, 27th May 2011

The idea to export PNG bilums was home-grown and builds on what the women already know and are good at doing, writes CATHERINE MACKSON


A GROUP of women in Western Highlands has come up with an ingenious way to make money and promote a bit of PNG’s culture on the world market at the same time.
The Mt Hagen Handicraft Group is an all-woman self-help initiative, supported by the Baptist Union of PNG, who make bilums for export on a wholesale scale.
The activity aims to assist the women to escape the traps of poverty, violence and HIV and AIDS. The group has a membership of nearly 200 women.
They have already managed to sell more than K70,000 worth of bilums to Germany, and have received orders from Japan and Australia.
HIV programme manager for the Baptist Union, Michael Pagasa says some of the women in the group are living with HIV, but almost all of them are from the settlements in Mt Hagen, who are trying to deal with immense struggles and difficulties in their lives.
“In many ways they are like other women in this part of the country. They have to deal with poverty, violence in the family, tribal fighting, sometimes even drugs. On top of this is the responsibility of putting food on the table and sending their children to school.”
Understand our lives; Learn about our struggles; Buy our bilums; Making Crisis History! is the motto the women developed for the website showcasing their products.
The website,, was launched last month in Mt Hagen by Anne Malcolm, programme director for the PNG-Australia HIV and AIDS programme.
“Through AusAID, the Australian Government is committed to working with all of our partners to ensure that women in PNG exercise their rights and have access to services that reduce their vulnerability to HIV. This includes the right of those women who are living with HIV to participate in community activities, learn new skills and earn their living,” Ms Malcolm said.
She added that Mt Hagen Handicraft group had the potential to do extremely well because the idea to export PNG bilums was home-grown and builds on what the women already know and are good at doing.
One important aspect of the activity has been the setting up of savings accounts for each of the handicraft group members. Between 2008 and 2010, a majority of the women earned more than K200 interest on their accounts and saved more than K400.
A few of the women have used their profits from the scheme to venture into other activities. Mary Jean, whose husband of 20 years deserted her and her children, used the extra money to buy material to sew meri blouses and blouse and skirt outfits.
“Mi no gat planti toktok long mekim. Mi tok tenkyu tru long God olsem Baptist Union i stap na em helpim mi na senisim laip blong mi,” (I don’t have much to say. I am thankful to God that the Baptist Union is here and has helped to change my life).”
Barbra Pagasa the Hagen Handicraft Group women leader explains how the handicrafts group started in 2007.
“We decided to go with the idea of making and selling bilums because many of these women did not have the opportunity to complete a primary or high school education but they are all very skilled at making bilums, choosing colours that compliment each other, weaving beautiful designs into the bilum. And they’re so good that sometimes they can make two or three bilums in a couple of weeks.”
AusAID, through the PNG-Australia HIV and AIDS programme, has provided financial support of K140,000 to Mt Hagen Handicraft Group since it started, and K1,438,000 to the Baptist Union’s HIV and AIDS programme since 2007.  – The writer works with Public Affairs, AusAID