In the Highlands of Papua New Guinea (PNG), tribal fighting impacts many aspects of people’s lives. Education is no exception.
Eli is 14 years old. She lives in Hela Province in PNG’s Highlands and dreams of growing up to be someone. But these dreams are interrupted by fighting and violence. For over a year, the fighting in Eli’s community has prevented her from going to school. “I really want to go to school, I want to be someone in the future, and I want the fighting to stop,” she told us.
The humanitarian consequences of tribal fights in the Highlands of PNG can be immense. Tribal fights can leave trails of destruction, death and injury. With houses burnt, food gardens destroyed, and public infrastructure damaged, it can be difficult for communities to rebuild, when or if the fighting stops.
Tribal fights are a traditional way to settle disagreements in the Highlands. However, they have become more unpredictable and violent over past decades, as well as more frequent. The breaking down of traditional hierarchies and rules, the loss of some traditional values such as respect for women and children, and an influx of modern weapons have changed the nature of fights.
Eli Koms is from the Wofia clan in Kikori, Gulf Province, with strong ancestral ties to the bordering Southern Highlands Province. He was the first International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) officer working in rural areas around Mount Hagen in the Highlands. He has been working with communities impacted by violence for 10 years and has seen how fights have changed.
“Tribal fighting has always been a part of the culture in the upper Highlands region. Communities in this region had to fight to protect their properties and families against their enemies,” says Koms. “In the 1990s, it was easier to control fights as fighters obeyed their leaders. The consequences of fighting were not as severe compared to today as people fought mostly with spears, stone axes and bows and arrows.”
But in the 2000s, an influx of guns and a decline in respect for leaders saw an increase in casualties. This has compounded the impacts of tribal fights. As Koms told us, high casualties demand hefty compensations that communities often cannot afford, resulting in prolonged displacement of people and longer periods before peace is restored.
Even when peace is restored, the scars left from the absence of schools can last years after the violence has stopped. Schools are important centres of community life, and without education, social and economic vulnerabilities can be heightened. Not only do schools equip young people with the knowledge and skills they need to sustain their lives – or rebuild after violence – they also provide a sense of normalcy and can help young people cope with stress.
Looted or destroyed school buildings aren’t the only way that fighting can hinder access to education. Sometimes it’s too dangerous to make the journey to school. Sometimes boys are pressured into leaving their education behind to join the fight.
Traditionally, men and boys are both the fighters and the decisionmakers. While this is not always the case, it means that there can be an immense pressure on boys to leave their education behind and help protect their families. Even if they want to continue their studies, there isn’t always a choice. “Many boys feel obliged to fight and support their elder brothers. It is a tough spot to be in because they have to protect their families,” Leonard, a grade eight student from Hela, told us.
Frustration born from this narrow choice can also extend to mothers who don’t want their children caught up in violence. Jane, also from Hela, is a mother to boys and wants them to go to school. “I do not want them to be taken to the haus man Palamanda [for initiation of boys into manhood] to be trained as fighters. I want them to get an education.”
One school striving to provide an education for students following recent fighting is across the region in the Southern Highlands. This school is Wabi Primary School, where Glenda Aldor attends classes.
Glenda was in grade eight (in PNG, primary school is from grade three to eight) when the fight in her community broke out. She had to run away from the violence with her parents, leaving everything behind. Her books, her pens, everything was burnt down and destroyed.
In late 2022 however, Glenda was able to go back to school as the communities surrounding Wabi School moved towards peace. “This year I managed to come back and complete my studies and finally sat for my examination. Education is the only way of getting a better life,” she told us late last year.
Access to education is a humanitarian priority and an important part of ICRC’s work supporting communities affected by tribal fights. The ICRC has been working with the community at Wabi School, supporting the rehabilitation of the school through supplying construction materials for rebuilding, desks, blackboards, sports items, and stationery for students. Last year, the school began opening with a few teachers, students, and classes. It is now back to full capacity, having opened its doors for the start of a new year in February.
Samuel Bariasi is a communications officer with the International Committee of the Red Cross, Papua New Guinea.
Emily Contador-Kelsall is a communications officer with the International Committee of the Red Cross, Australia.
This article is part of the “Forgotten Conflicts” series by the International Committee of the Red Cross in partnership with the AIIA, highlighting the serious and often overlooked humanitarian consequences of armed conflicts and other situations of violence. It is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.