Braving the Kokoda trail to raise HIV awareness in Papua New Guinea

03 July 2017

The Kokoda trail winds through the Owen Stanley Range in Papua New Guinea and is billed as one of the world’s most challenging treks. Nearly 100 km long, the track goes through rugged mountainous terrain and hikers are buffeted by hot and humid days followed by intensely cold nights. Carol Habin is a member of the national organization of people living with HIV in Papua New Guinea, called Igat Hope Inc., and she decided to raise HIV awareness by hiking the trail in June. She joined a group of around 20 people from Australia, which also included HIV-positive people.

“As a woman who works in HIV advocacy programmes, I have come to realize that women are vastly underrepresented in my country,” said Ms Habin. “Violence against women in Papua New Guinea is extremely high. I wanted to walk the trek to not only raise awareness about HIV stigma and discrimination, but also to empower women living with HIV and to make sure their voices are heard.”

The initiative Ms Habin joined was led by the HIV Foundation of Queensland under the Kokoda+Stronger Than You Think project. UNAIDS supported the mobilization of resources for Ms Habin’s participation in the trek. The team was led by Ji Wallace, who is an Australian living with HIV and an Olympic athlete.

“With a lot of work, we can change the attitude of the community,” said Mr Wallace. “It may not happen overnight, but we have the power within us to change.”

The trekkers took eight days to complete the hike. They conducted HIV awareness sessions with people living in villages along the track.

“I was surprised to find out how little the villagers knew about HIV,” said Ms Habin. “This initiative was very helpful in getting them to understand people living with HIV. I think also thanks to media coverage we have helped transform the way the public views HIV-positive people. I’ve shown everyone that as a woman living with HIV I can do anything, even hike one of the world’s toughest trails.”

Papua New Guinea has the largest HIV epidemic in the Pacific Islands. In 2015, there were 40 000 people living with HIV in the country and 2700 new HIV infections. The country is one of the few in the Asia and the Pacific region in which women are at higher risk of HIV than men, with 56% of new HIV infections occurring among women.

“I particularly want young women to understand they can say no to sex and stand up for their rights,” said Ms Habin.

The hikers completed the hike in late June and returned to Port Moresby for a celebration. UNAIDS Papua New Guinea Country Director David Bridger congratulated the team.

“Papua New Guinea has made immense progress in its HIV response,” said Mr Bridger. “But until the fear that generates misconceptions and breeds stigma is overcome, the AIDS epidemic will continue to claim lives. The Kokoda+Stronger Than You Think initiative is an innovative way to help break down misconceptions and celebrate the strength of people living with HIV. I congratulate your efforts.”

Ms Habin plans to build on the initiative and work with the Government of Papua New Guinea to encourage more people to take HIV tests and adapt HIV prevention to the needs of young women.