Josephine Abaijah

Josephine Abaijah

Interviewed by Ian Kemish, Musawe Sinebare and Jonathan Ritchie Aug 13 2015

Dame Josephine Abaijah was the first woman to be elected to the House of Assembly, in 1972.  She pushed unsuccessfully for the territory of Papua not to be joined with New Guinea in the lead-up to independence. She discusses the Papuan experience of Australian administration and the separatist ambitions of the Papua Besena movement.

Time Summary Keywords

Josephine Abaijah is welcomed to the interview.


Josephine Abaijah discusses her first encounters with Australians when she went to Australia when aged 15-16. She states that at Milne Bay she only had Papuan teachers, and sat for a scholarship examination. She recalls that her father was not happy about that but her mother encouraged her. She recalls that she joined a group who all went to schools in Charters Towers, Queensland.

Australia, Charters Towers, education, Milne Bay, Queensland, school

Josephine Abaijah states that while Australia made her who she is today she is not happy about what Australia did to the Papuan people.

Australia, Papuan Independence

Josephine Abaijah relates that she only knew Papuans. Having recently attended reunions from this time she questions why Australia only took some Papuans for education when they were going to prepare Papua for independence.

Australia, Papuan Independence

Josephine Abaijah discusses how she became involved in activism. She recalls her time at the Papuan Medical College and her contact with the Australian medical profession who taught her to stand up for herself as at that time the status of women in PNG was very low. She recalls that while at the Papuan Medical College she represented the country at the South Pacific Games held in Fiji in basketball.

basketball, Papuan Medical College, South Pacific Games, sport, status of women

Josephine Abaijah discusses sport in Papua, and learning basketball from the women in the village in Milne Bay. She recalls playing at school and for Papua Medical College against the Teachers College. She relates how at PMC she began working in rural areas of Central Province doing work in health education.

basketball, Central Province, health education, Papuan Medical College, sport

Josephine Abaijah recalls that it was through her health education work in rural areas where she would stay with people and see their difficulties and these people encouraged her to stand for politics.

health education, political aspiration, rural areas

Josephine Abaijah recalls her first exposure to independence ideas at PMC, and her switch to joining the PMC staff. She describes doing a health education course at London University in 1967-68, and on her return setting up the Institute of Health Education.

health education, independence, London University, Papuan Medical College

Josephine Abaijah explains that travelling with students made her realise the problems with decent roads, for example between Port Moresby and Hula, a distance that would have a decent road in Australia.

development, Hula, infrastructure, roads

Josephine Abaijah states that others shared her views at this time, especially regarding roads, light, water in rural areas.

development, infrastructure, rural areas

Josephine Abaijah states that she did not have contact at this time with others working for independence, but she recognised the needs of the people in rural areas who encouraged her to stand. She recalls that she thought she had no chance of being elected as a lot of women had stood but never been elected. She recalls that when she stood for Central Province she had no money for campaigning.

Central Province, elections, independence, politics

Josephine Abaijah states that she built her political platform around three principles - 'For Papua, for your land and for your health and well being', dictated by the people and by the pastors of the Uniting Church who were strong supporters.

political campaign, Uniting church

Josephine Abaijah discusses her campaigning, and the reaction of Australians counting the votes who made a declaration in other seats but did several  recounts because they could not believe a woman had won the seat even though she had a big margin.

elections, status of women

Josephine Abaijah discusses her involvement with the Papua Besena movement and explains the meaning of the word she says was coined by Uniting Church missionaries and means family or community.

Papua Besena movement, separatist

Josephine Abaijah discusses the reaction of others in parliament to the Papua Besena movement, the lack of support from other Papuans in parliament because she was a woman and the research that Papuans have since conducted into their own history. She recalls making arrangments to visit Australia but no government minister would meet with her resulting in her use of demonstrations back in PNG.

Australia, Charles Barnes, demonstrations, Papua Besena movement, status of women

Josephine Abaijah discusses her reasons for visiting schools, providing a role model for children as a woman in parliament. She discusses her access to research on Papuan history.

status of women

Josephine Abaijah states that she had limited knowledge of other colonial experiences at the time, although she had travelled to Africa with the World Health Organisation, and reiterates that Australia made a mistake by pushing Papua and New Guinea together.

Africa, World Health Organisation

Josephine Abaijah discusses her experience as the first and only woman in the national assembly, how she was spat upon and had her hair pulled. She recalls not feeling welcome but gradually she established good relations with the men.

status of women

Josephine Abaijah discusses the need for infrastructure projects especially roads and her ongoing visits to rural areas.

development, infrastructure, roads, rural areas

Josephine Abaijah discusses her association with West Irian (now Indonesian Province of Papua), and approaches from Australian Aborigines and others for her support.

Australian Aborigines, Indonesia

Josephine Abaijah discusses the 1977 elections when she successfully stood for the National Capital District where a lot of Papuans were located, and the different challenges in that district. She recalls women storming the labour office to fight for an increase in wages.

1977 elections, Albert Maori Kiki, demonstrations, Papua Besena movement

Josephine Abaijah recalls the lack of political organisation in the early years and the travel by politicians. She describes her appointment as Governor of Milne Bay in 1999 for five years and states that she travelled extensively prior to entering politics.

Milne Bay, travel

Josephine Abaijah describes her support from the Rotary Clubs of Australia who helped her win election in Milne Bay and the need for politicians to achieve something practical for people. She gives an example Rotary sending hospital supplies to Milne Bay after the closure of an Australian hospital.

Milne Bay, Rotary

Josephine Abaijah discusses the issues of politicians travelling.


Josephine Abaijah discusses her ongoing support from two prominent business people, Brian Bell and George Constantinou.

Brian Bell, George Constantinou

Josephine Abaijah discusses approaches for her to join a political party rather than be an independent. She discusses her ongoing projects including delivering sewing machines to women living in the Owen Stanley Ranges.

Bill Skate, rural areas

Josephine Abaijah discusses research into Papuan history and questions why Australia did not establish an upper house in PNG.


Interview concludes.