“As an Engan girl, basically, I do not belong to me,” explains Ruth Kissam, founder of Partners4Change and GWIM alumna from the Highlands of Papua New Guinea. “I belong first to my family, which means most of my decisions, especially…life-changing decisions, cannot be made on my own. I am either someone’s daughter, someone’s mother, or someone’s wife, and they will always refer to me as that.”
Girls in Ruth’s community are expected to obey the decisions the men in their lives make for them. A girl is supposed to get married and care for her husband’s animals and children. Pigs have a higher value than girls and women.
Despite these cultural norms and thanks to her upbringing, Ruth became a strong woman leader with a desire to help her people traverse the crossroads they are facing. The modern world is inserting itself into this ancient, remote society, causing a sense of uncertainty and turbulence that is a struggle for many in the community. They are unclear about which traditions to keep and which new ones to adopt.
“We are a people that jumped straight from the Stone Age into the Digital Age,” she explains. “People don’t know how we have to do things to change, adapt, and understand where we come from.”
Ruth’s father was one of the first men of his culture to see the European explorers enter the Highlands of Papua New Guinea in the 1950s. Inspired, he learned pidgin and studied to become a pastor. Unlike most parents, both Ruth’s mother and father were very supportive of her education, including attending university to pursue her law degree.
Ruth returned to her parents’ home when her mother passed away. She began working for nonprofits in the community. She saw there was more needed, so she paid for things from her own pocket and convinced community members to help implement her plans.
“As soon as I made enough money, I would pay for medicine for maternal health in the borders on Enga and Hewa. It was about 520 kina [about $175] just to fly one way to bring in medicine for women,” said Ruth. “A lot of them died because the airstrip was very short [and medical planes could not land]. We had to extend the airstrip, and that came out of our own pocket, so the planes could bring in supplies.”
In 2011, Ruth and other members of her community, including her father, began to formalize Partners4Change. Initially, they kept the organization small, working on community projects.
“If there was something we could do, I wanted the community to do it. Papua New Guinea is a communal society. People step in to help. That has always been part of our culture,” Ruth explained. “But, it’s slowly withering away. We tried to encourage and empower them to clean up our village, pick up all the rubbish, and get all the mothers up to the hospital.”
In February 2013, everything changed for Ruth. A woman in her community was accused of sorcery, beaten, and burned to death about 500 meters from her home. Because of cultural norms, the woman’s family would not claim her body. After several months, Ruth felt compelled to provide the woman with a proper burial. This decision put her at odds with her community and even her extended family.
“People came to my house, [and] if my father wasn’t there, I would have been physically assaulted,” she explains. “I realized that the people in the community thought that they did society a good thing [by] killing her. They didn’t understand that what they did was wrong.” Ruth understood that she couldn’t directly address the topic of sorcery, but she called the community together in a forum to address other issues affecting everyone.
“The only way we could make them participate was to come up with a community law, but we did not even touch sorcery-related violence in the first gatherings.” Ruth said. “We said, ‘Look, our kids aren’t going to school. Marijuana and brewing of ‘steam’ [moonshine] is becoming an issue, let’s come up with a community law.’ The community law criminalized those activities and sorcery-related violence.”
Ruth soon realized that many of the people who were involved in selling marijuana and “steam” were disenfranchised youth looking for an income. As a result, Partners4Change designed a program to provide high-risk youth with entrepreneurial training and coaching, so they could start legal businesses. This project was an ambitious one for the organization and for Ruth. She felt insecure about some of her abilities.
Ruth had heard about Plan International USA’s Global Women in Management (GWIM) program from her contacts at ExxonMobil. The ExxonMobil Foundation has sponsored GWIM since 2005.
“To tell you the truth, it’s like it was programmed just for me,” said Ruth. “Everything that I’ve gone through is all about [what] I’ve lacked in my leadership as someone who founded their organization. I’ve been trying so hard to look for ways in which to build my own capacity, so that I can be better placed to empower others.”
Ruth attended the four-week Asia Regional GWIM program in Jakarta, Indonesia, along with 25 other women from Indonesia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. Each GWIM workshop brings together women from diverse cultures and countries to share, examine, and adapt best practices worldwide for expanding women’s economic opportunities and meeting the needs of their communities and countries. Creating a participatory learning environment, the workshop covers leadership, gender, economic participation, fundraising, project management, financial management, advocacy, and public speaking.
“I can see now how to run your organization so that it is transparent, so that it has its objectives and its goals in a way that makes it so much easier for you to manage it,” she explained. “All these things were things that I was actually struggling with in my organization, and coming here just put everything into perspective for me. I just can’t wait to put all those things together. I am already doing that.” GWIM provides participants with a safe environment in which they can reflect on and assess what they want for themselves and for their organizations. The workshop strengthens and guides participants to identify their desired personal and professional paths and helps them execute a plan to get there. After the workshop, GWIM participants are paired with a trained alumna coach for a year, who will encourage and support them to implement their action plan.
“Coming here…and learning about emotional intelligence was not only an eye-opener for me, it was like a bomb going off in my head,” explained Ruth. “It made it so much easier to understand my people. It made me put myself in a better place so that I can better develop programs. To come here and learn about the emotional aspect of being a good leader has empowered me. But, also, it has set me on a path that I want to do more.”