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ABM and the Anglican Church of PNG Working for Change
Written by Isabel Robinson.

Literacy graduates from the diocese of Port Moresby.
Literacy graduates from the diocese of Port Moresby.
© ABM/Meagan Schwarz 2012

Penny, a young woman from the Papua New Guinea village of Simbai, never went to school. ‘I used to be too scared to go to the health centre without my husband’, she says, ‘because I couldn’t read the materials the nurses gave me’.

Literacy can be defined as the set of technical skills of reading, writing and calculating. In our society, many of us take these skills for granted: it is hard to imagine life without them.

Across the world, approximately 759 million adults lack basic literacy skills, two thirds of whom are women [i]. This is a shocking statistic, particularly because literacy is a right in itself [ii]Without literacy, people do not have equal life chances. Can you imagine not being able to read the price of rice from the store? To be unable to read the instructions on your medicine? To be unable to write a letter to a relative or friend, or to fill in a form? To not know how much change to give your customer at the market, as you cannot add and subtract? For many of us in Australia, these basic skills are a given.

As UNESCO states:

‘In the 21st century literacy is part of life in every society; it is a key to communication and learning of all kinds; it is a fundamental condition of participation in today’s knowledge societies. As a means of accessing new and wider sources of information, literacy enables people to better manage their own development and take more autonomous decisions. Economic and cultural globalization means continuous learning is essential for survival, for improving people’s quality of life, and for development of all kinds – human, social, economic and cultural.’ [iii]

Illiteracy is closely connected with poverty: people with low levels of literacy are more likely to earn less and experience poverty or extreme poverty; their opportunities are limited in all spheres of life; and their children risk falling into the same cycle.

In Papua New Guinea, Australia’s northern neighbour, the challenges of geography, limited government services and a majority rural population mean the illiteracy rate is high. But how high?

The official literacy rate is 56%, but this figure is based on the 2000 PNG National Census, where respondents were asked to self-identify as literate or illiterate. However, self-identification is an unreliable methodology when determining literacy rates. A more recent study conducted by the Asia Pacific Association for Basic Adult Education together with the PNG Education Advocacy Network, published in 2011, surveyed people across 5 provinces of PNG: the National Capital District, Sandaun, Gulf, New Ireland and Chimbu. Using simple reading, writing and numeracy tests (such as looking at pictures of a bird, a fish and an eye, and being asked to join the picture with the relevant word), the study results were worrying. 

While more than 70% of respondents in the five provinces self-declared confidence in their ability to read and write in a national language (English, Tok Pisin or Motu), actual literacy rates in four out of five provinces were less than 15%, while in New Ireland Province the literacy rate was 25%. Across the five provinces, the rates were as follows: literate 12.5%; semi-literate 42.5%; and non-literate 45%. The study also found that across all five provinces, females are seriously disadvantaged compared to their male counterparts: girls and women are less literate and more likely to be excluded from formal schooling. The results show that the percentage of non-literate females is at least 10% higher than the number of non-literate males, and in Chimbu province, there were almost twice as many non-literate females than males.

For women, the empowering effects of literacy are especially important. Women who are literate are able to assert more control over finances; are more confident in expressing opinions; receive greater respect from their families and communities; and are more likely to send their daughters to school.[iv] 

Although the figures are concerning, it’s important to recognize that Papua New Guinea is a unique society with extraordinary geographic and cultural features. The challenge of teaching people a common tongue is far more difficult than people might imagine. The country has well over 800 languages – only half of which have developed written texts. 

Parts of Papua New Guinea have also had relatively limited interaction with the rest of the world, partly because of isolation, topography and underdevelopment. Indeed its rugged terrain, which varies from coastal wetlands to dense tropical forests and a central mountain ranges with peaks up to 4,500 metres, has hindered the building of infrastructure and is a serious barrier to travel from region to region. In some areas small planes are the only means of travel other than walking.[v] 

In this difficult context, ABM together with its partners, Anglicare PNG and the Anglican Church of PNG, are working to provide literacy opportunities to those many, many people who have missed out on a formal education. The Anglican Literacy Program, begun as a small initiative of the Anglican Mother’s Union prior to 2000, works in rural areas of Papua New Guinea, and now has over 2500 students enrolled, the majority of whom are women. Students typically begin with no ability to read or write. They learn the alphabet and how to form words using phonogram sounds, and this leads on to basic writing, reading and maths. The course is practical: for example, students learn how to add up money and to calculate the correct change to give.

ABM is proud to support our partners in Papua New Guinea as they work towards giving all people the chance to be literate, as enshrined in the PNG Constitution. As Penny from Simbai said:

“When I was young, I didn’t go to school and never knew how to read and write. Now that I have attended literacy classes, I am clear about many things. I can read prices, and when I am selling garden produce I can now give the correct change.

Before, I was too scared to go to the health clinic without my husband, because I couldn’t read the materials that the nurses gave me. Now, if my children or I are sick, I no longer need a man to accompany me: I am confident to go on my own.”  

Thanks to this program, people like Penny have been given a second chance.  


  • Watch this video to see Rachael Inuwai, Literacy Officer in the Milne Bay Province of PNG, talk passionately about her work

  • Listen to this ABC Radio Interview to hear Bernard Paru, Anglicare Port Moresby Branch Manager, talk about the literacy situation in PNG and what Anglicare is doing to help.
  • Watch this video to see for yourself the literacy work Anglicare PNG is doing in Port Moresby.