Matthew Landu will use his HMRI research links to educate future mums in his PNG parish.
As health and social conditions deteriorate in his native Papua New Guinea Highlands region, Catholic priest Matthew Landu is hoping that his connection with HMRI’s Mothers and Babies Research Program can be a stimulus for change.
During a recent visit with former colleagues at the HMRI Building, he outlined his vision to build a new high school to educate young girls, so that future generations may be imbued with hope and direction.
“In my province there were 6000 kids who finished Year 8 last year but only 3000 found spaces in high school,” Fr Landu said. “The remaining 3000 had to return to their villages, their squatter settlements and onto the streets, which has been happening year after year.
“The boys can try to find places in technical schools. The girls go into prostitution then suffer drug and alcohol issues.”
Professor Roger Smith, Leader of the Mothers and Babies unit and a passionate advocate for Indigenous health, said the mental and physical wellbeing of communities was clearly dependent on the status and schooling of women.
“It is well known, epidemiologically, that the health of populations is closely correlated with the level of education of mothers within that population,” he said.
Fr Landu, having been fortunate to receive an education himself, considered studying medicine until following the priesthood. He gained a PhD in Philosophy in Rome then gravitated towards a scientific advisory role within the Church.
Fr Landu later embarked on a Science degree at the University of Newcastle and did Honours in molecular biology, working in Professor Smith’s laboratory. His work focused on CRH (Corticotropin Releasing Hormone), a placental marker thought to influence gestation length.
“It’s an extraordinary voyage through time and place, to come from Goroka in the Highlands and a largely animistic religious base to pursuing Catholicism and then the science culture,” Professor Smith said. “Now, Matthew is taking that back to Goroka, working to build a high school predominantly for girls.”
Among a raft of health issues in the Highlands, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis malnutrition and infections are major threats. Young women also continue to struggle with childbirth complications as they fail to reach hospital from remote areas.
“It’s not a simple matter of medication – the whole society is sick,” Father Landu said.
“A large number of women, even as young as 13, have HIV/AIDS through unprotected sex and drug use, and many women are also killed for witchcraft – it happened in my own parish recently.
“You just want to do something to give young people a chance in life.”
With the Church condemning the use of condoms and contraception, Father Mandu is concerned by the current population explosion in Papua New Guinea. “In the 1970s it was 2.5 million, now it’s pushing towards 8 million,” he said. “Personally I have been trying to change the mindset of our bishops.”
Professor Smith said that educating future mothers could also help stem the population growth. “It has been shown in other cultures that the more a woman is educated, the fewer the children she has,” he said.
There would also be life benefits for young men: “What made me feel strongest about this topic was a visit to an outstation in the Kimberley region, where the male Aboriginal elder asked me, ‘how do I stop the young men killing themselves?’,” Professor Smith said.
“They grow up not knowing how to do anything and have low self-esteem. My answer was ‘educate the mums’.
“Mums will give them the grounding to survive, teach them their own culture, teach them Western culture, so they can get jobs and have standing in their community.”
HMRI is a partnership between Hunter New England Health, the University of Newcastle and the community.