Breaking the Silence on Violence Against Women in Papua New Guinea

by | December 8, 2012
filed under Feminism

Papua New Guinea Flagby Matilda Branson

I currently have the pleasure to be working with two amazing Women Human Rights Defenders from Papua New Guinea (PNG), Mary Kini, founder of Kup Women for Peace, and Monica Paulus, founder of a community organisation defending women accused of sorcery and who are victims of discrimination and violence. Sponsored by the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR), Monica and Mary are visiting Nepal for three months, to strengthen their capacity in monitoring and documenting human rights violations with the women’s NGO I work with.

Each woman has her share of both inspiring and often horrifying stories of their work in the highlands of PNG. Which is…where?

PNG is a small country, situated in the south-western Pacific Ocean, next to Indonesia and above Australia. A former member of the British Commonwealth, PNG gained its independence from Australia in 1975. It has a population of about 6.2 million, over 800 different languages, and more than 80% of Papua New Guineans live in rural areas surviving on subsistence agricultural practices. A third of people live in extreme poverty. Much to my shame as an Australian, and a neighbour of PNG, I didn’t know any of this until I met Mary and Monica upon their arrival in Nepal.

This shame has only increased upon learning the abysmal situation for women in PNG. I don’t often use the word abysmal – it’s a strong term, with a lot laden onto it – but the situation for women is exactly that.

With a state that is weak to non-existent outside of the capital Port Moresby, traditional social and cultural controls on violence are failing. A vacuum in public security has driven the growth of armed criminal gangs and crime in PNG through the roof. Often this crime is intricately connected to organised crime at a higher level, with the political and business elite as well as state authorities. The influx of guns into the country has added to the dire effects caused by inter-tribal conflicts and tribal violence regularly turns into full-scale gunfight, with women and children the most vulnerable to murder, rape and violence during these frequent conflicts.

Domestic violence is estimated to be at 90%, enforced by cultural values that teach such violence is crucial for ensuring respect of the wife for her husband. Rape, and gang rape, are used regularly as tools to incite fear amongst communities. There is little to no recourse to justice – one woman last year who took her rape case to the police was gang-raped by the police themselves.

Human Rights Watch says that PNG police are guilty of “wanton crime and abuse” (Report of the Royal PNG Constabulary Administrative Review Committee to Minister for Internal Security Bire Kimasopa, September 2004.) and the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture in 2011 report found “systematic beatings of detainees … reach the level of torture.”

Women will be off public streets by four in the afternoon because it is so unsafe for them. Just across the sea from northern Australia, people, especially women are being hacked to pieces, decapitated, raped, tortured, burned alive – I’m not exaggerating, have a look at the OHCHR’s report on Armed Tribal Conflict and Sorcery in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea for more info of the excessive brutality occurring.

We know a bit about VAW in Congo and Sudan – why do we know nothing of the atrocities being committed against women in PNG?  The silence is deafening and the brutalities being committed, day after day, cannot, and must not, continue.

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