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Paula Baker
Volunteer social worker, Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea

A historical narrative: The Lifeline service in Papua New Guinea

There is little information about counselling practices in Papua New Guinea that provide insight into the emotional and social issues that have confronted their people. The major churches in PNG supported the opening of Lifeline in the early seventies, at a time when problems were surfacing or were evident in the lives of people brought about by urbanisation and the introduction of modern living. As an independent service, Lifeline is Papua New Guinea’s oldest counselling service and is unique in providing services to Papua New Guineans from all over the country.

Lifeline can make a significant contribution to relieving these concerns and supporting PNG communities to confront these challenges. That demand is difficult to respond to because of the lack of funding and increase of fear and trepidation in the community. This paper contributes as a historical report of Lifeline as a key social work service and as a call to action to position the struggles of social work in PNG and across the Pacific.


Since 1973, a range of support services have been provided for people including crisis intervention, and support for the immediate needs of women escaping violence. Different counselling practices in Papua New Guinea have evolved from different sources in the community, including early traditional practices where churches were the main sources of counselling. Churches have been central in providing education and health support services including radio broadcast (PNGCC statement on the role of churches undated).

Education provided by the churches also played a role in the advancement of women, around the same time as the establishment of the Lifeline organisation. A collective voice for equality in the name of women reached Provincial governments as an Act of Parliament (R. Gware & R. Matane, personal conversation, 2018). The National Council for Women (NCW) of the 1970’s and 1980’s purpose was to empower women at all levels of PNG society. At the time of its inception the NCW was lobbying government about paying women for the work they do in agriculture and supported the notion of difference understood as the early traditions of emotional support by women for women.

Lifeline has one centre and is located next to the largest established settlement area in the city which has a population of around 50,000 people. Lifeline is staffed by a combination of paid staff, expatriate volunteers, and volunteer members of the patron churches. In 2012 external stakeholders partnered to addressed gender based violence for immediate support services. The Building Safer Communities research program leader Hukula (2021) reported that it was expected that during times of hardship, violence will occur as families adjust to restriction of movement and economic hardship, loss of income for people. The organisation’s services have included face-to-face counselling, letter writing counselling, family planning, a health clinic and Port Moresby’s first women’s refuge (seif haus).

Lifeline’s practice and services

Lifeline is the primary based community based service for women experiencing violence but does not receive funding. Practical support and strategies are given to people to address issues of social well-being and poverty. Lifeline operated a telephone confidential counselling service [defunded] some years ago. In terms of financial viability Lifeline relies on community donations, fundraising initiatives, and income from the hiring of hall facilities. Currently Lifeline does not receive external funding from donors to respond to Violence Against Women (VAW) – a ‘referral pathways’ inter-agency case management response. What lies behind response is a certain pattern that leaves women isolated in making decisions they think is best for them, against the struggle workers have responding to and connecting with community to address social and emotional issues.

Agencies like Lifeline grapple with issues such as agency and autonomy. Documents prepared by workers are checked then sent to authorities including a third-party donor who checks inventory against a service agreement (via a consortia) for supply and delivery of provisions such as groceries, garden vegetables. Administration and funding mechanisms are caught in an endless process of fixing or re-fixing process, governed by mainstream organisations. In the context of GBV response, specifying “difference” as a research term is to recognise traditional processes used within-community, such as services delivered by the Village Court. [What women] experience illustrates the notion of the effects of difference which enable or constrain actions in various ways – as the local vernaculars of difference. As referenced by (Hall, 2000) in (Singh, 2020).

Watego & Klimm (2021) in Kunjan (2021) confront conversations around origins of power to reflect the operational ways it works. They argue that having to navigate and strategise; trying to explain and understand; take a toll on the choices people make because situating background of where you are, and where you come from, is not recorded in reporting (Kunjan, 2021).

Workers’ experiences

Drawing on the way workers talk about their experiences is crutial to know what resources or services are available, but this is generally not known or utilised as knowledge. Lifeline has had major challenges providing proposal submissions. On the one hand when international funding bodies talk of partnership or things like ‘bridging knowledge gap[s]’ in service response - on the other - civil society’s local agencies don’t get to explain how it’s done.

Women apply for warrants of breach of violence protection orders is one reason for doing community responsive work including bearing witness to services building relationships. That fear often translates into actual harm for many women connecting to how workers respond and has been observed as “more needs to be done” to address different ethnic groups and ‘street leaders’. Critical to know is what are the observations and essential information to build on what services not being seen ‘in the referral system’. Lifeline is impeded by financial constraints against the struggle workers have responding.

A person centred approach criticality

The silence of response as an outcome of a person’s experience (not in economics) is the ability of educating a knowing of it to affect change. The United Nations forum on ‘Indigenous issues’ (2002, 2003) recognised via national and international bodies, a lack of data on Indigenous peoples (Kukutai & Taylor, 2016). Tuhiwai-Smith (2012) explains that power relations in construction of the coloniser and colonised relationship is the difficulties of ‘processes and choice’ as being inextricably linked. “This right: necessarily includes; the right to have data and information collected, by them – jointly with them, that reflect their past and present realities” (Kukutai & Taylor, 2016; p.xxii). For example: Categories such as family, community, and state may carry different meanings and relationships than what is implied in standard research or in mainstream approaches that don’t centre strengths of [answers to] connections with community (Kukkanen, 2012).

If funding is meant for new services, it must listen to grass-roots service workers on what they plan to do for safety and shelter. Lifeline has applied for funding from the United Nations “Building Back Better”, a capacity building program for the Pacific – however, was unsuccessful. Anecdotally it appears the large funding grants are given to the international non-government organisations and agencies. Lifeline’s recent funding submissions were submitted with the best intentions using a critical lens to observe issues and disruptions since the pandemic outbreak. Calls for proposals work within in a framework whose objectives operate with a different understanding that is imposed from without, not within.

Differences to big organisations

Community based organisations like Lifeline are better equipped to deliver authentic support because of its community connections and the lived experience of staff. Lifeline’s historical services for women, whose knowledge connect to the lives of the people they know in their community is different to the international women’s movement on gender discrimination which focuses on individual equity rather than the structural impacts on women’s lives (Xanthaki, 2019).

Singh (2020) writes on sovereign divergence, explained as an act and a process of diverging actions and the struggles following as costs to physical and mental well-being. The GBV response framework is used by workers to assist survivors experiencing violence. A way of thinking that uses processes in what lies behind a certain response. A different service response, is a strengths-based approach that informs a historical background of a person’s experience as a life experience (Lowitja.org.au, 2021). Thinking about the constraints and challenges of the work for a grass-roots agency, opens up perspectives that think differently to mainstream understanding. We still see capacity building workshops being hosted and presented by the big NGOs who decide, and who are not confident in recognising capabilities and capacities embedded in the work. There is nothing that replaces the expertise of these people in their communities – their cultural perspectives and their lived experiences of GBV there. Historical background to the different aspects of a person’s experience, link between the personal experience and the processes of sovereign divergence emphasises what Singh (2020), says about Race locally needing to inform Race internationally.

In paper by a white Race scholar, on ‘white Innocence’, Macoun (2016), makes a connection to confronting the colonial perspective about issues that are learned in colonising people. She says, “is it possible there could be many paths for people who live and work in their communities to grapple with the conflict they are engaged, through which better futures and relationships could be formed.” Where we locate awareness of [our complicity] in ongoing racism and colonialism involves appreciating locations and limits (Macoun, 2016). Perhaps it is the power of, not power over, workers voices in this moment, that paints a positive picture, no notion of perfectness, and is the difference between the deficit of GBV response and of Lifeline’s value in the community that people have trusted.

A new research project aims to document the written counselling history of Lifeline, identifying the issues and concerns of those seeking help. An important Indigenous style of counselling that, while not recognised, has played a part in the development of social services and welfare agencies. In Papua New Guinea the struggles are made difficult because of the assumptions interpreted for people of their connection to information and support. This needs to be acknowledged and shared in writing.


Knowledge taken place in society can shed light on years of service to establish a story, sharing the struggle of what this really meant for people. This conceptual paper meets the struggle of giving voice to what you don’t hear a lot about, – as the gap in analysis. Critiquing ‘white ways’ as learned, historical in relationship, provides a story raising questions of how things work. Sharing a unique situation of the Lifeline service in PNG meets the struggle of forging new definitions for social work and the distractions to inform social work transformation, specifically globally.


Hukula, F. ‘The Potential Impact of COVID-19 Pandemic on Vulnerable Groups’. The National Research Institute Papua New Guinea’. Retrieved from www.pngnri.org June 2021
Kukutai, T., & Taylor, J. (2016) Indigenous Data Sovereignty; Toward an agenda, ANU Press: The Australian National University, Canberra, ACT
Kunjan. P (Producer) & Watego, C, & Klimm, K. (Writers) (2021). 3CR855AM radio [Audio podcast]. ‘Race in Production of health inequalities’. July
Kuokkanen, R. (2012) ‘Self-determination of Indigenous Women’s Rights at the Intersection of International Human Rights’ Human Rights Quarterly, Vol. 34, No. 1 pp.225-250 DOI:10.1353/hrq.2012.0000
Lowitja Institute (2021, August 11), Indigenous Knowledge Translation webinar series [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from http://www.lowitja.org.au
Macoun, A. (2016) ‘Colonising White Innocence’: Complicity and Critical Encounters in Maddison, S., Clark, T., & de Costa, R. (eds). The limits of Settler Colonial Reconciliation: Non-indigenous People and the Responsibility to Engage. Springer, 85-102
Papua New Guinea Council of Churches (PNGCC) un-dated, ‘Reconstruction and Development Through Partnership; the role of the churches in development at local level’.
Singh, D. (2020) ‘Racial complaint and sovereign divergence: the case of Australia’s first Indigenous ophthalmologist’, The Australian Journal of Indigenous Education 49, pp.145-152. https://doi.org/10.1017/jie.2020.17
Tuhiwai-Smith, L. (2012) Decolonising Methodologies second Ed. Otago University Press: Dunedin, New Zealand
Xanthaki, A. (2019) ‘When Universalism Becomes A Bully: Revisiting the Interplay Between Cultural Rights and Women’s Rights’, Human Rights Quarterly, Vol. 41, No. 3
Kukutai, T., & Taylor, J. (2016) Indigenous Data Sovereignty; Toward an agenda, ANU Press: The Australian National University, Canberra, ACT