Ruth Kissam is a community organizer and a human rights activist focusing specifically on the areas of Sorcery Accusation Related Violence (SARV) in Papua New Guinea. She is the Director of Operations for the PNG Tribal Foundation, a growing nonprofit organization that works in areas of maternal health, education, women and gender issues and also manages the Senisim Pasin Film Campaign, which is a multi-year national campaign that has been specifically designed to change thinking and cultural attitudes about how women are valued in PNG. With over 15 years of experience working with youths, women and children, Ruth has built a reputation as a Champion for Change which has earned her the prestigious Westpac Outstanding Woman Award 2018 (WOW). She became the first Papua New Guinean to be selected for the Obama Foundation Scholars Program at Columbia University and is part of the 2019-2020 cohort. A strong believer of gender appreciation to advance women’s growth in her country, Ruth is a voice for the voiceless.
How would you describe yourself?
I am a Melanesian indigenous woman. I believe in the power of communities that’s why I work as a community organizer and human rights activist.
You are an activist from Papua New Guinea working on ending gender based violence and violence related to sorcery. Can you explain why you chose this career?
I claimed a body of a woman killed on allegations of practicing sorcery and causing the death of a child and buried her in 2014, a month shy of her first anniversary. Her horrific death and subsequent robbing of her dignity by not burying her remains kind of dragged me into this space of working to fight for justice for women accused of sorcery accusation related violence.
You are currently an Obama Fellow. What does this opportunity mean to you and how do you see it impacting your work?
I claimed a body of a woman killed on allegations of practicing sorcery and causing the death of a child and buried her in 2014, a month shy of her first anniversary.
First of all it is an amazing opportunity and a wonderful chance of a lifetime to partake in a prestigious fellowship like the Obama Foundation Scholars program. But I also see this as an opportunity to educate the world on harmful cultural practices like the sorcery accusations related violence. I am hoping that this will shed light on the challenges that we are facing in PNG on how to make justice accessible to victims of SARV.
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You are “fearless” in your current position. Help us walk in your shoes and understand where you get the strength from.
It would be remiss of me not to mention my father who instilled in me a deep sense of justice and he was my main supporter until he passed in June 2018. Being my father’s daughter meant faith also played a big part in my outlook on life and it was my motivating factor to give women a fighting chance no matter the cost to myself. I also have a deep appreciation for life and the people I am surrounded with and I know m family has my back and that allows me to put myself out there because I know I have people who believe in my and the work that I do.
What excites you when you wake up every morning?
Plain gratitude for the life I have. I have so much to live for. I have my large Engan family, a daughter, colleagues, my work, my faith in God and the zest for life itself. And because I have been given so much, I give so that it keeps me I don’t drown in all my ‘getting’.
Share some examples where you have made a difference in your country and community.
I have been fortunate enough to work with an organization that truly believes in finding solutions for problems from within communities through a contextualized lens. Papua New Guinea is an ancient society with deeply entrenched patriarchal norms and values. Flippant and careless introduction of concepts of gender equality to combat GBV was seen as an attack on the threshold of masculinity thus relegating any issues relating to gender as women’s issue and treated with disdain especially by men. Bearing that in mind and through a lot of research and interacting with different communities we used our film campaign the Senisim Pasin Program and introduced Gender Appreciation as a tool to highlight values of women and why it was important to have mutual respect and understanding and share loads within a family. We have seen that our non-violent communication tools and the concept of Gender appreciation has had a big and positive effect on all the communities that we have so far visited in PNG.
What are some of the challenges you face? How do you overcome them?
Being a female working in a space that is targeting women is a challenge especially when you have to physically be there to repatriate them. One of the big challenges I face is the emotional trauma that comes with being exposed to cases like these and sometimes you find that you can’t save them all or get them the justice they deserve. For me, that is the hardest part because I am highly empathic and sometimes these setbacks drain the life out of you and can make you physically ill too. I have been able to overcome most of these by surrounding myself with amazing friends and family and also having “time-outs” when you know you are becoming toxic to people around you.
One of the big challenges I face is the emotional trauma that comes with being exposed to cases like these and sometimes you find that you can’t save them all or get them the justice they deserve.
How do you manage self-care? Do you believe in work-life balance or integration? What are some of the strategies you adopt?
I always try to give half ‘n’ half. What I mean by that is if I spend a whole day working on a case, I immediately take the other day off and either read, watch cartoons, hang out with my family or do something fun like cooking for the whole family. Sometimes it could be a week, and I try to balance that by taking three to four days off. I’ve also tried to give myself time-out which gets me out of the country but to a training program so that I take a break but I do something productive with my time like what I have done here now with the Obama Foundation.
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Do you consider yourself a “Global Girl”? Why?
I am a Global Girl because I fight to make my corner of the world safe and free for my girls to grow and thrive.
What is the advice you would give your 16-year-old self?
Don’t stop believing in doing good, and trust in yourself that one good deed has the potential to multiply in a million different ways.
What are the three values you think are most important for a global leader?
Compassion, empathy and respect.
What’s next for Ruth?
I feel the world is my oyster but I also see a great need for the women in my country and region to be given the opportunity to have a greater say in how the decisions of the government of their country affect their lives. I would like to be involved more with women’s leadership, maybe not politically, but in an influential way to impact policy affecting women.
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