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In everyday life, bilums are common tote bags used to carry goods home from the market or the garden. In fashion, they are worn as accessories to promote one’s status. In times of ill health, bilums are used as stretchers to transport the sick or injured. And at the end of life, bilums hold a prominent place in funeral ceremonies, with high-status members of a tribe or community often buried inside a large and colourful bilum. Thus, from the cradle to the grave, literally, bilums help Papua New Guineans trace the course of a lifetime.



A traditional symbol representing a young girl’s journey into womanhood. When a girl reaches puberty, she enters a small house for a period of confinement. During this time, the community’s women come together to teach her what it means to be an adult woman in Papua New Guinea. It’s both a figurative and a practical intervention. A rite of passage. A girl enters the house; but a woman emerges – adorned with diamond pattern bilums to signify her journey. She has crossed the threshold into adulthood.

UNFPA and the adolescent girl: The onset of menarche is an opportunity for learning and knowledge about the female body, menstrual hygiene, prevention of unintended pregnancies and protection against sexually transmitted infections like HIV/AIDS. PNG has the highest incidence of HIV/AIDs in the South Pacific. Boys must also be made aware of these risks, and both genders should have access to reliable information about how to protect themselves.


Worn during the traditional womanhood ceremony by those who have already passed through puberty The half-diamond-patterned bilum shares similar origins with the fulldiamond design. Women who don the half-diamond bilum typically accompany the younger girl during her time in the haus mer.

UNFPA and family planning: In Papua New Guinea, many women do not have access to family planning. Key indicators for health remain below optimal levels. The modern contraceptive prevalence rate (mCPR) still averages at around 31% of married or in-union women, with high rates of unmet need for family planning among this group at around 26%. Moreover, almost 1 in 4 births (24%) occur less than 24 months after a previous birth. Short birth intervals, particularly those less than 24 months, place newborns and their mothers at increased health risk including preterm birth, low birth weight, and death. We urgently need investment to close the gap and end the unmet need for family planning.


Inspiration from the shape of a woman’s ovaries and fallopian tubes This design was considered shocking for its depiction of female body parts that are central to the process of reproduction—and therefore sacred. The less-controversial name DD soon emerged to describe the pattern; it was alternatively known as Eyeglasses, while still others named it after a traditional dance featuring long adorned poles that resembled the shape of the bilum pattern.

UNFPA and maternal health: Ending preventable maternal death is an unfinished agenda globally and in PNG there has been limited progress in the past decades. Rural women do not make use of antenatal and post-natal care, which means both the mother and baby risk poor health outcomes and complications resulting from anaemia. It is estimated that only 800 nurse-midwives fully dedicated to maternal and reproductive health service provision are present throughout the nation. PNG needs serious investment in emergency obstetric and newborn care systems, yet no new comprehensive care facilities have been established since 2010.



A potent symbol of the challenges women must overcome in society First appearing in Siane Range, a village between the rugged mountains that separate the Chimbu region from the Goroka Valley, this bilum pattern spotlights the inevitable struggles of life—and in particular the challenges that women in the area have long faced. One has no choice but to navigate— sometimes several times a day—the steep slopes, which can be wet and slippery.

UNFPA and the reproductive life cycle of women: UNFPA works with partners to translate gender equality and reproductive health rights into practical strategies and approaches that ensure no woman will ever be left behind. If addressed from early adolescence, girls will be more likely to complete schooling and higher education, achieving gainful employment.  They are more likely to marry as an adult and of their own choice; their children will be healthier and benefit from an education; and their senior years will be more secure. In a holistic way and underpinned by better policies, more resilient social systems and gender equality, UNFPA works to significantly improve the lives of women.


Symbolising the role of methodical attention and diligence in a woman’s craft Young girls typically weave this traditional pattern when they are first learning the craft of bilum. According to legend, one girl wanted to rush through her weaving of a bilum, with the ease and speed of a spider weaving its web, but her mother admonished her, reminding her that the production of a strong, long-lasting bilum requires methodical and diligent attention.

UNFPA’s education programmes for young girls and boys: UNFPA works with governments and partners to develop and implement age-appropriate comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) programmes that meet international technical standards. The foundation of CSE is based on teaching social and emotional intelligence, beginning with the self. Just like making a bilum, this exercise should not be rushed. Questions like “Who am I? What is important to me? How can I best relate to self and others?” are important building blocks to self-awareness and form the basis for setting personal boundaries.


A reminder of the unequal status of women in traditional PNG society The name skin pig refers to a traditional feast in PNG in which women are wholly responsible for the preparation of the meal. However, when it is time to eat, the women who laboured to produce the meal are only served the leftover fatty remnants and skin. The pattern’s symbolism reflects on the unequal status of women in traditional village life in the country.

UNFPA and gender equality: UNFPA, as part of the United Nations system, has long been an advocate for greater gender equality to enhance the status of women and girls so that societies can achieve their full development potential. As long as women and girls are prevented from enjoying the opportunities and rewards that come from their labour, development will disproportionately privilege men, particularly those whose status is already confirmed within a social hierarchy.

The PNG Constitution, adopted in 1975, speaks clearly of the importance of equality so that “each man or woman will have the opportunity to develop as a whole person in relationship with others,” and while recognizing importance of honouring the cultures and traditions of the past, it the promotes “equal participation by women citizens in all political, economic, social and religious activities.” The vision for the newly independent State of Papua New Guinea was inclusive and respectful of the contribution of women to its traditional cultures and the future development of the country. In highlighting the traditional design of the Skin Pik, we question how the role and status of women, along with recognition of their needs and reproductive wellbeing, has evolved since 1975.