Women leading and influencing



COVID-19 Leadership: Empowering Women to Keep Working

Thursday, 10 September 2020

Australia Awards alumni Welenie Yaki, Rhoda Karl and Clera Sam are empowering Papua New Guinean (PNG) women sewers and market vendors to safely earn an income during COVID-19.

The Women’s Leadership Initiative (WLI) participants and alumni established the Women's (Economic) Empowerment project to support mothers working in the informal sector whose livelihoods are greatly impacted by COVID-19.

Targeting Port Moresby-based women market vendors, the project promotes relevant and accessible COVID-19 health messaging, strategies for income generation and financial and savings awareness.

The 30 women participating in the project will also be provided with sewing machines and materials to produce and sell their wares – on which many sewers’ and their families’ income relies entirely.

Targeting women market vendors

Supported by WLI as part of its COVID-19 response, the Women's (Economic) Empowerment project specifically targets women who make and sell shopping bags and meri blouses at informal markets in and around Port Moresby.

The WLI implementing team – also from PNG – explained that most project participants have low levels of literacy, lack understanding of COVID-19, and many are widows or single mothers of school-aged children.

While at work, the women have no allocated selling spaces or structural protections and are often positioned around market entrances; increasing their risk of coming into contact with coronavirus.

“COVID-19 has slowed down their sales activity, especially when there were strict restrictions on people’s movement … markets [were] closed by the city as a way to avoid spreading the virus,” the WLI team explained.

But without any other source of income, women sewers’ capacity to financially support their families becomes extremely difficult.

Responding to participants’ needs during COVID-19

The WLI team drew from their expertise, networks and skills learned on-Award and through the WLI program to meet the specific needs of project participants.

This included health and hygiene awareness delivered in-country by Clera in Tok Pisin language; so mothers could clearly comprehend and relay information on keeping themselves, their families and communities safe.

Clera said, “In doing so, this project is helping to communicate or extend Government-sanctioned health awareness messages to the people in the communities.”

The project will also provide each participant with a personal sewing machine and materials, so they can independently rebuild and resume their sales activity.

“During our first meet up, some of the women expressed challenges of having faulty machines they fix themselves ... for others, they could no longer fix their broken machines or … buy new parts.

“Providing sewing machines to these women will be a significant relief and boost to their sales … [and] bring positive impact and support towards a family, community and country at large, in terms of helping to equip an individual to be financially independent,” the WLI team said.

A future workshop on financial literacy, budgeting, saving culture, and how to open a bank account will also be delivered to participants.

“By delivering financial literacy training, this project aims to give equal opportunities for these women to learn how to grow their money … in the long run promoting financial inclusiveness for all … minimising issues of poverty in the country,” the team said.

Implementing and evaluating the project

Clera says that despite challenges of implementing the project with a dispersed team – Welenie still studying on-Award in Australia, and Rhoda having just returned home to PNG – she draws strength from excellent team cooperation and participant feedback.

“After our first session, I gained a clear understanding of what this project means to these women. At the same time I began to consciously map out what should be done.

“Some of these women voluntarily shared their stories on how the weeks of lock down earlier this year had impacted their sales and lives as a whole and how thankful they were to be part of this project. [It] means so much to them because of the value they see this project will bring to their lives,” Clera said.

The team also mentioned the “welcoming” positive responses they’ve received from local organisations keen to discuss the project further, especially since there are “no actors or organisations” working specifically in this space.


Welenie, Rhoda and Clera’s Women (Economic) Empowerment project is one of 15 COVID-19-related leadership projects being implemented by WLI participants and alumni in the Pacific.

Funded by WLI, teams work collaboratively to scope, develop and implement projects with a focus on health, education, safety and security, and agriculture and food security are being implemented across six Pacific countries (Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Samoa, Nauru, Tonga and Solomon Islands).

Find out more about each project here.