Leadership & Ethics

Opportunistic Engagement with the Military Wives Group in Papua New Guinea

By Tecla Makoni August 12, 2020

EXERCISE MISSION: Exercise Pukpuk 2019 was to partner training, infrastructure development and infrastructure rehabilitation with the PNG Defence Force Engineer Bn, building lasting partnerships with Australia’s neighbours.


I am Capitan Tecla Makoni of the Royal Australian Army Nursing Corps (RAANC). I was delighted to be tasked as a Nursing Officer from 1st Close Health Battalion (17th Sustainment Brigade) to be part of the Medical Team in support of 3rd Combat Engineer Regiment on Exercise Pukpuk 2019, in Papua New Guinea (PNG). The Exercise spanned almost 6 weeks, from 25 August - 5 October 2019. The overarching aim of the exercise mission was to continue to build and strengthen ADF and PNG Defence Force partnerships.

Whilst supporting members of the Pukpuk Sqn, and maintaining full medical capability as a Medical Team, a few members of the ADF Health Detachment had the opportunity to engage and work closely with the PNG military wives and daughters within the Igam Barracks. We witnessed a coming together of women from all corners of Igam Barracks, to discuss the cornerstones of leadership, family, and women’s health.  Coordinated largely by me, Lt Xiaobei Yi and Sgt Jaye Griffin, the kinds of activities undertaken included weekly health promotion meetings, leadership briefings / discussions and a healthy amount of positive social integration!  My focus was chiefly on leadership.



If not you, then who?   Breaking into some leadership fields:  

On 15 September, during our first formal meeting with the Military Wives Group (MWG), I had the honour of delivering a short briefing on leadership. Communicating with the MWG was made much easier than anticipated noting that English is a common language in PNG. What I was acutely aware of was the cultural setting of the audience. I realised that Australia has progressed more rapidly in the gender equality debate. To be talking about female representation on executive boards, women in politics, and wage disparity issues is laudable, but this would not be entirely relevant to the current lives of the women in the PNG MWG.  Hence, l hoped that I would captivate, inspire and encourage the women to aspire to be their personal best and lead by example in their own homes and communities. Often, many regard leadership as a masculine only activity - warrior or defender. However, perhaps something like nurturing could be as powerful? In most cultures, nurturing is seen as a purely feminine quality, but coming from a female is its contribution to leadership somehow diminished? The following is a brief adaptation of my messages on that day:


Leadership in the home: The first aspect of leadership I want to encourage you to embrace is leadership in the home. Most of you are already in this field of leadership. The home is a respected place of female dominance, in many cultures. The home has always been the ultimate sanctuary in many cultures, but we often seem to discount that. In my opinion, the worst thing we females can ever say is I’m just a mum, or I’m just a housewife. Leading from home is powerful. As military wives, you support your men to be the soldiers that they are today. You keep households in order and provide peace of mind back at the home base, in the absence of your husbands when they go away on long deployments. This knowledge allows male soldiers to free their minds of worry about the home situation, permitting them to focus on deployed combat operations / exercises. As a military wife, many of you will be raising children, with minimum help from your partners, as they embark on necessary military commitments. You are already in a supportive leadership role but may not have fully realised it!

In many historical societies, women had secured the home as their place of leadership. Raising kids and looking after their husbands. However, if they were unable to bear children, they may well have been divorced, as society perceived that those women had failed in their primary role as wives. Back then, women had no public voice. They were not allowed a democratic vote and they could not stand in court as witnesses. Their words were not to be trusted, unless backed up by a man. In the Victorian era in Australia, a woman could not open a bank account without her husband’s permission. Despite these social disadvantages, many of which are now consigned to history, women in the Victorian era led from the home. They had influence. From their homes they changed and contributed to the reformation of laws, such as stopping child prostitution and stopping slavery. In 1854, Florence Nightingale deployed to the Crimean War and totally changed how injured soldiers in the field hospitals were cared for. 

Further back in time in 1791, the women of England boycotted sugar that came from slave plantations and the World economy suffered. Women said we might not be able to vote, we might not be able to speak out, but we won’t buy our sugar from plantations where there is slavery. Furthermore, they also went on to buy anti-slavery produced goods, such as jewellery, and crockery. Again, they said we might not be able to vote, we might not be able to speak out, but we will stop slavery, and they did.

So where are we as women in the 21st century? Whilst the situation has improved greatly from those days, we women can still do better. From our homes, we can lead, look after our children, look after orphans and influence proceedings. But we still face problems - domestic violence, for example. You ask, what can be done? It is good that we have safe houses and hospitals, but we must provide education to women sooner, own the issue, start to address it in your communities, start to help one another, speak up sooner. Then we would have less reliance upon the hospitals, we would not need the safe houses. We must stop seeing our sisters admitted to hospital with broken arms and bruises from domestic violence. And, we must stop seeing our sisters dying from cervical cancer, which is preventable. Do you know where that education starts? In our homes, at the tuckshop, at the school gate, at the marketplace, and in our small groups, such as MWG; creating safe places in our community.

Leadership in the community: The second aspect of leadership I want to encourage you to embrace is leadership in the community. Whether that is in business, volunteering at the schools, at church, sports clubs, or educating yourself. You and I are not the same, but we are very similar. As women, there is something deeper inside that lights a fire within us – something that makes your heart jump. There is much potential in the women of PNG that is yet to be realised, no matter what age and/or stage of life you are at. Both men and women together have that assignment - to bring leadership into our communities. A woman in any kind of leadership role, whether it's volunteering at a school, being on the board of a sports club, or a church leadership committee, you are not plan B, you’re not back up, you are not there because some guy didn’t turn up, you are not second, third, or fourth pick. You might be the first pick, you might be the best leader for the job. And instead of just settling in your role as a volunteer or the employee you are today, aim to be one of those key people who can sit in board meetings. You can help make decisions that can be of more help to those that you aspire to lead. When you lead from the top, you influence a whole lot more people than if you are in lower or middle management.  You might be volunteering in the church, but if you become one of those key leaders, you can help make decisions that can be of more help. In the orphanage instead of being a worker, run it!  Or better still, create a better one. You could start that netball club that will revitalise the community.

Why does it matter that we should have women holding leadership positions in our community? When women are absent from the table, and when women are absent from community leadership, society limps, culture limps, organisations limp. Our community can be a whole lot better. We can do better. The reason our communities are not a whole lot better is because women are missing from the table. Women are desperately needed in the equation. Whether that is turning down the volume on our own doubt, or whether it means putting ourselves out there as females, determined to smash it because we are just as good as everybody else. The personal qualities that you have, if developed into leadership skills, mean that you can make it up the ladder. You don’t get this recognition solely because you are female. You get to the top because you are knowledgeable, intellectual, willing to work hard, have a compassionate streak, are empathetic, have honed your leadership skills etc. When you bring that to the table, things can only improve all around. There is worldwide research on economic outcomes when women are involved in key leadership positions in companies, cooperatives, and not-for-profit organisations. Research undertaken by Melbourne University Centre for Ethical Leadership reveals that companies with women as directors, or those with women on executive boards, make more money for their shareholders, unlike companies where only men sit as directors or executives.

Our communities are in decline. The job is too big for men alone. Women must rise and find their place. And not just to shout “Give us a Go!”, but to get up there and lead, to attend to matters of justice, bring a compassionate edge for consideration, despite a culture that often says women don’t speak out and don’t vote.

Mentoring: I want to close by asking you all to look outside through the windows. We are surrounded by forests. A forest is only a forest if there are strong trees and small plantings. I am delighted to have 3 female generations standing in front of you all today, representing your community. Older women you are desperately needed, especially in your military community. Military families are unique and Service life can be challenging. You cannot do it alone. You need your sisters; sisterhood is powerful. The older women ought to pass on to younger women / daughters the tips and lessons you have learnt along your journey with the military. Continue with these conversations, because if you stop talking and if you leave, do you know what happens to that forest? It risks becoming a wasteland. This stunning generation that is growing up needs the older trees. Let us energise this sisterhood culture and pass it on from generation to generation.  You are your sister’s keeper.



Going Forward - Sisterhood in Action:

The MWG women were inspired and the meetings that followed were a raging success. With the sharing of food, dances and culture, these sessions provided a safe environment for women to share their stories, to bond and to celebrate the extraordinary influence of women in the lives of our respective communities. Notwithstanding leadership, our discussions were centred on women’s health (sexual health and wellness), domestic violence, and marriages. As leaders within their own homes and community, the women were encouraged and empowered to take charge of their own health and wellbeing.  They were convinced that their contribution was desperately needed in their communities, creating safe spaces, and extending the sisterhood to where it is needed most.



On 23 September at 0530HRS, the Igam Barracks women met for their first power walk exercise session as a group and on that day the Igam Sisterhood Exercise Club (ISEC) was founded. Ever since then, the women have been meeting four times per week for their group exercises and occasionally these sessions are followed by breakfast together. The group made workout T-shirts with their logo Igam Sisterhood Exercise Club printed on them. Besides training and exercising together, the group is undertaking many positive activities. They have organised free cervical cancer and Sexually Transmitted Infection screening for all Igam Barracks females. Visiting the sick, they make meals for their community members in hospitals and fundraise for any emergencies in their community. 



I continue to follow the ISEC on their Igam Sisterhood Exercise Club Facebook page and get to hear of their positive and productive influences in their communities. ISEC members are leading from their homes and making a difference for their families and their communities. As an ADF neighbour, I am proud to be a part of them.




Tecla Makoni

Captain Tecla Makoni grew up in Harare, Zimbabwe where she completed her bachelor degree in Nursing Science at the University of Zimbabwe. Upon graduating in June of 2005, Captain Makoni began her nursing career with humanitarian Non-Governmental Organization – Medicines Sans Frontiers (Doctors Without Borders), providing rapid response to communicable disease epidemics and public health threats in the developing country. It was through this experience that Captain Makoni developed, early in her nursing career, a strong passion to serve others, living by the quote by Albert Pine “What we do for ourselves dies with us. What we do for others and the world remains and is immortal.” 

In 2009, Captain Makoni moved to New Zealand where she worked with cancer patients for 2 years before relocating to Australia in 2011. In Australia, Captain Makoni worked as a clinical coordinator in Community Palliative Care New South Wales prior to joining the Australian Regular army. She was also involved in the coordination of Palliative care Clinical studies collaborative at Calvary Research Centre in Sydney New South Wales.

Her passion to serve others and the community eventually led her to enlist in the Australian Regular Army as a Nursing Officer in September 2017. Her first posting was to the First Close Health Battalion as Nursing Officer for 2 years. She is now currently posted to 2 General Health Battalion as a Nursing Officer. Captain Makoni holds a Bachelor of Nursing Science (Hons). She is currently studying a dual master’s program of International Public Health and Health Management. She is married to her husband Edmore and they have two young boys. She follows most sports, tennis in particular, and enjoys family holidays. 


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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