June 2020

From There to Here

Naomi Woyengu, Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea

This is part of the Young Women's Stories—Fostering Leadership project.

  • Gender equality & women's empowerment

As the eldest in my family, I was always reminded to lead by example for the sake of my four younger sisters. My current work mentoring other young women has come naturally to me, but my journey to this point has not been smooth sailing. Still, I am grateful, because my struggles and the beautiful lessons I have learned from them have defined who I am today and forged my path as a young women’s activist and advocate.

Fifteen years ago, both my parents were unemployed, and we were living in the outskirts of the second largest city in my country, Papua New Guinea. Life was tough. My family struggled to survive and couldn’t afford to send my sisters to school. I was able to attend, but only with the financial support of my extended relatives.

In those days, I watched my mum break her back looking for opportunities to make money and take care of us while my dad spent his days in our garden to make sure we had food. Their resilience and strength were — and still are — incomparable. It broke my heart to see my parents struggle and my siblings not in school. I tried my very best to excel academically to at least give them something to be proud of, despite our hardship.

My family weren’t the only ones to struggle though. In our community, young people — especially young women and girls — were married off or given away to be used and paid for. Drug use, alcohol consumption, and violence against women and girls were everyday norms. I was the only girl who went to school, so when the girls and women would meet at the river to bathe, I would tell them about books, movies, and stories to educate and inspire them.

After I completed grade 8, I was accepted into high school. It became even harder to balance my schoolwork with the challenges of poverty. Because I lived outside of the city, I had to walk miles to catch the bus to and from school. Every day for three years, I went to school on an empty stomach with nothing more than my bus fare in my pocket (if I had bus fare at all). I left home at 5 a.m. and wouldn’t return until 6 or 7 p.m. Sometimes I was so tired by the end of the day that I didn’t even have the energy to eat.

I don’t lament having to endure a difficult childhood. In fact, it gave me experiences that no classroom could ever offer and taught me resilience.

Naomi Woyengu

In spite of the struggles and with the support of a good friend, I managed to excel in high school. In grade 10, I was actually nominated as a school prefect — a member to the Student Representative Council. I was ecstatic; I never thought someone as poor as me could achieve such a role. My family, too, was so happy when they heard the news. This boosted my confidence and helped me see that, poor or not, I could become who I wanted to be.

But later the same year, just before my Grade 10 examination, I encountered a nearly devastating setback. My school fees became overdue, and I was told I could no longer continue to attend. I will always remember that day as if it was yesterday. I left the school crying, running past people who were staring and wondering what was wrong with me. So many thoughts raced through my head. I believed that was the end of my education and that I would never be able to amount to anything.

I lost all hope in that moment, but God had greater plans for me and answered my prayers that very afternoon. As I cried and ran toward my bus stop, I passed through a gas station. Through tears in my eyes, I recognized a truck parked there — it was the truck that my family’s church used to pick up supplies from town.

At that very moment, the driver’s side door opened and my pastor stepped out. He looked at me and knew immediately that something was wrong. With tears still streaming down my face, I told him what had happened in school. He pulled out the church’s checkbook and wrote a check for my school fees then and there (our church had Mission Funds, which helped those in great need). The next day, my entire outstanding school fees were paid. I sat for my exam that year and managed to complete high school.

Naomi leaned over a table laid out with papers speaking with a group of people

After high school, I was accepted into the University of Papua New Guinea, where my passion for female education, human rights, and gender equality became much clearer. I graduated with an honors degree in Political Science and have pursued my passion to advocate for young women. To that end, I currently serve as the Regional Coordinator for the Young Women’s Leadership Program in Asia and the Pacific with the World YWCA.

I don’t lament having to endure a difficult childhood. In fact, it gave me experiences that no classroom could ever offer and taught me resilience. When I facilitate workshops, design programs for young women, and attend sessions at the United Nations, I recall the young women and girls from the community I grew up in, including my own sisters. I know the importance and impact of my work, and I realize that from there, I have made it here, doing what I love —empowering other young women and girls around the world to lead transformational change.