Violence against women is a profound violation of human rights that exists in societies around the world. In Papua New Guinea, a small Pacific island country comprised of over 800 distinctive languages with a population of over 7 million that ranks towards the lowest of the Human Development Index, women face one of the highest rates of domestic and sexual violence in the world.
In February 2013, Kepari Leniata, a 20 year old mother, was accused of sorcery and subsequently stripped naked, tortured with a branding iron, tied up, soaked with fuel, and burnt alive in front of a crowd of over 200 people in Mount Hagen of the Western Highlands. This heinous incident is not unique in Papua New Guinea – there are daily and countless reports of women and girls being gang raped, murdered, tortured, beaten, and sexually abused.
It is important to note that gender-based violence requires a broad conceptualisation to accurately and meaningfully account for the realities faced by women. Gender-based violence can be sexual, financial, psychological, emotional, and physical and it exists across the spectrum of abuse, harassment, intimidation, neglect, threats, coercion, assault, murder, torture, and rape. Gender-based violence manifests in a range of private and public contexts – the family, the household, the workplace, the tribe, the marketplace, the community, and the street. It is perpetrated by men that are spouses, intimate partners, family members, acquaintances, and strangers. It occurs regardless of age, socioeconomic status, religious faith, and ethnic identity. Women, men, children, families, communities, and the economy all suffer from gender-based violence. Indeed violence against women in Papua New Guinea is an immense public health threat and a profound barrier to socioeconomic empowerment, wellbeing and dignity.
70 percent of women are survivors of violence in Papua New Guinea, and in the Chimbu and Western Highlands provinces almost 100 percent of women are survivors of violence. Although, it is impossible to provide a completely accurate estimate of the rate due to incomplete data and reporting asymmetries, the situation of violence against women in Papua New Guinea has been described as an ongoing humanitarian crisis and unique outside a war-zone.
The causes and factors that enable and perpetuate violence against women in Papua New Guinea are complex, deep-rooted, and multifaceted. Violence against women is seen as “em nomol ya” (that’s normal) in a country steeped in cultural epistemologies of conflict and masculinity coupled with an increasing socialisation of violence. Indeed, violence against women has not only become normalised but legitimised. Survivors are marginalised in the justice system, stigmatised in the community, and face multilayered barriers when seeking and accessing help particularly in the context of the feminisation of poverty.
From an early age girls and boys are exposed to violence and are socialised not only to expect but to accept violence against women by men – as “em pasin blo ol” (that’s their way). Violence that accompanies hierarchies of power, of men over women and of adults over children, is entrenched through generations of origin myths, informal institutions, and customary law. Indeed, men are often seen to possess the “rait” (right) to express their aggression.
Fundamentally, a culture of impunity pervades Papua New Guinea where the justice system is disinterested in the safety and rights of women and, particularly, the survivors of gender-based violence. Access to justice in Papua New Guinea is incredibly limited and women are marginalised in a system that fails to offer legal recourse, closure for the victim, punishment of the perpetrator, and deterrence of future crimes.
Such failings stem from widespread corruption, stigma and apathy in the Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary and in the various machinations of provincial and national government. Indeed, the police are under-staffed, under-trained, often corrupt, frequently violent, and largely disengaged from the safety and rights of women. Consequently, a widespread distrust in the community of the criminal justice system prevents any engagement and pretence of justice. The stark failing of the justice system for survivors of violence is demonstrated by comparing the rates of treatment of survivors with the rates of criminal convictions in Lea, Papua New Guinea. In 2010, the Family Support Centre in Lea treated 338 survivors whereas the Lea National Court only convicted 1 perpetrator in 2012. Thus the approximate probability of a sexual violence conviction is 1:338. The actual probability is even lower because not all survivors report or receive treatment for their violence. Threats of reprisals and prevailing stigmas of shame and guilt prevent survivors from receiving medical care or legal assistance. Thus the endemic and entrenched reality of violence against women is largely a silent crisis.
Indeed the vast majority of claims of domestic, family and sexual violence never escape the informal and customary mechanisms exercised by village courts and in families, tribes and communities. Traditional Melanesian 'Big Man' politics and cultural norms create an environment where survivors of gender-based violence face a backlash from their own community when seeking justice and struggle with the stigmatisation of being a victim. Ultimately, the justice system of Papua New Guinea is failing survivors of gender-based violence.
The way forward in challenging and preventing the entrenched reality of violence against women in Papua New Guinea is not simple or straightforward. At the fore of this must be the empowerment of women, advocacy of gender equality and removal of discriminatory laws, systematic reform of the criminal justice system, and the wholesale improvement of support and emergency services. In the context of the feminisation of poverty, the economic and political enfranchisement of women and better access to educational opportunities and quality healthcare are also vital. Efforts made to hold the Papua New Guinean Government accountable to meet its obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women are paramount. Particularly, since the Papua New Guinea Parliament passed the Family Protection Act in September 2013 that criminalises domestic violence.
Tasman Bain is the Co-Founder of Meri Toksave (an anti-violence against women initiative in Papua New Guinea), a White Ribbon Ambassador, and a former UNICEF Australia Young Ambassador. He studies anthropology and development at the University of Queensland.
Meri Toksave (a non-profit initiative co-founded by Ayesha Lutschini, Courtney Price and myself) is working to provide youth-led solutions to gender-based violence in Papua New Guinea. Our first project was centered on rectifying the information asymmetries that are profound barriers for survivors of gender-based violence seeking and accessing support services. Our next project is a grassroots campaign to raise awareness of the rights of women and to challenge the prevailing norm and legitimacy of violence. For more information on Meri Toksave please visit www.meritoksave.org and www.facebook.com/meritoksave.
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