COVID-19: Women, Water, Sanitation and Hygiene in the Market Places of Papua New Guinea

5 min read
Woman selling her fruit at the Wewak Town Market
Image: HELP Resources

COVID-19 has impacted countries around the world in many different ways. In addition to the ongoing health crisis and devastating loss of life, many countries have seen significant disruption to their economies.

Millions of people globally have lost their jobs in the unfolding disaster of the pandemic, yet in many countries like Australia, who are part of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), an intergovernmental economic organisation, we are lucky. Living in Australia, we have social safety nets which provide for protection against times like these, and it is vital that we recognise and appreciate this, as many around the world are not afforded this in times of global disruption.

In Papua New Guinea (PNG), at the time of publication, there has been eight confirmed cased of COVID-19. The government has declared a national state of emergency to slow the spread of the virus across the country, which includes similar restrictive measures to which many around the world have become accustomed. Schools have been shut, business operations reduced, and the informal sector on which many Papua New Guineans rely, severely restricted.

Woman selling her fruit at the Wewak Town Market
Markets play a key role in PNG culture and trade
Image: HELP Resources

87% of PNG’s 8.5 million people live in rural areas, and market places selling fresh produce are large contributors to this informal sector. The informal economy in the country accounts for 20% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), providing income or employment for 80% of adults in the country. 

Woman selling her fruit at the Wewak Town Market
Markets are a key part of PNG culture
Image: HELP Resources

A recent study by HELP Resources’ into the informal economy (2019)[1] found that 96% of all informal economy workers are women (89%) and children (7%).

75% of all the informal economy ‘work’, is market and street trading. Informal trading is a task taken on mainly by women, and their incomes provide a major contribution to providing their family with food, nourishment, physical and emotional well-being and finance for children’s education, health and other major life opportunities.

In PNG, market places and street trading are central to the culture and way of life. People grow fresh produce in rural areas and travel large distances to markets in PNG’s small towns to buy, sell and trade with others.

The recent COVID-19 shutdown has resulted in the closure of markets across the country, with profound economic impacts both at household and national level. Many households do not have sufficient money to meet their basic living needs, including the provision of water, sanitation and hygiene and essential health and education services.

Further to this, economic impacts from informal sector shutdowns and COVID-19 isolation requirements present high risks for family violence across the country, with women, children and other vulnerable groups at significant risk.

The PNG government has recognised the vital role of markets in PNG culture and for economic wellbeing and is laying plans for reopening markets and resuming trade.

fruit and vegetables being sold at the local market
The PNG government has recognised the vital role of markets in PNG's culture and economy
Image: HELP Resources

Whilst this is positive news, in the COVID-19 context, this task is immensely complex. Many of PNG’s markets are congested spaces with thousands of people trading, buying and selling each day. Women and children spend long periods of time at the markets prior to returning to their homes in rural areas, yet many market places lack basic water, sanitation and hygiene to make longer stays safe and hygienic.

We know that access to safe drinking water, sanitation, and proper hygiene (WASH) facilities underpin all elements of development. Critically, with the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen how important hygiene and access to handwashing facilities with soap and water is. It saves lives.

Many markets do not have safe or adequate water, sanitation and hygiene
Many markets do not have safe or adequate water, sanitation and hygiene
Image: HELP Resources

Good hygiene practices are the first line of defence for preventing the spread of COVID-19. Yet just 37% of all Papua New Guineans have access to basic drinking water supply. Further, only 19% of the population have access to a basic level of sanitation and only 28% of households have basic hygiene, with handwashing stations where soap and water are present in their homes.

Markets present a significant public health risk with people unable to wash their hands and remaining stationary in unhygienic confined spaces for long periods of time. Papua New Guineans, lacking a social safety net, have no choice but to resume normal life and sell and trade at these markets, all while the threat of COVID-19 looms large.

This determined rural vendor stayed out in the rain when the hundreds of others around her gave up and packed up to shelter from the rain.
A determined rural vendor stayed out in the rain when the hundreds of others around her gave up and packed up to shelter from the rain.
Image: HELP Resources

WaterAid has worked closely with the government of PNG since 2011. The East Sepik region of PNG is located along the northern coastline, and the capital Wewak is dominated by costal ranges and the Sepik River, one of the largest rivers in the world.

In Wewak District, we are working with the Provincial Health Authority and Wewak District Development Authority to undertake COVID-19 awareness and preparedness, educating Wewak District’s 107,563 people about COVID-19, dispelling common COVID-19 myths and supporting the dissemination of important official World Health Organization and National Department of Health preventative measures.

At the heart of trade of this coastal region is the busy Laura Martin Market, also known as the Wewak Town Market, with thousands of people from across East Sepik Province travelling to sell their produce at this market. Thousands of people visit this market hub every single day, predominately women, who have often travelled far with young children and infants.

People at Wewak town market
Wewak Town Market
Image: HELP Resources

The market can often have 1,500 people visiting at any one time and 3,000 in one day, and the existing water supply simply cannot meet the demand. Water is critically important at the market and is needed for drinking, preparing and cleaning food, for flushing toilets and handwashing.

While the government lays plans for trade to resume at Wewak District’s main Laura Martin Market, WaterAid are supporting plans to rapidly expand handwashing infrastructure, increase COVID-19 awareness and promote handwashing with soap within the market.

Congested spaces such as markets with poor water, sanitation and hygiene services could be emerging COVID-19 threats, yet the indirect impacts of their closure are profound. For the markets to resume trade, quality water, sanitation and hygiene services is a critical need, the livelihoods and health of so many depend on it.

Authors: Tim Davis and Tegan Dunne


[1] Help Resources, 2019, ‘Informal Economy Trade & Livelihoods: markets urban streets and rural roadside trade in Wewak District