PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea — Papua New Guinea is making strides toward ending violence against women and children. While no official data exists, some reports estimate more than two-thirds of families suffer from domestic violence, while others believe the percentage is higher. Women are a major target in domestic abuse, but children are also victims. Groups in PNG are working to reduce the number of victims and provide resources for those who need them.
ChildFund Australia interviewed women while investigating violence in PNG; no interviewee reported that her husband never beat her. The report describes how women are attacked with bush knives, axes, burning and biting.
One woman lost her bottom lip when a random man attacked her and bit it off. Another woman was tracked down by her husband after she ran away from his abuse. He smashed her head into a car, and she died a week later, leaving her younger sisters to take care of her children.
These attacks are not always private. Often neighbors will hear an altercation, but they are either fearful to enter the situation or they do not feel it is their place. One woman was beaten while waiting for the bus.
Another cause of violence is accusations of witchcraft. Some citizens of PNG believe that unequal economic development or certain illnesses are caused by sorcery, so they attack the “witches.” Most of the time, the victims of these attacks are women. A 2012 report by the United Nations shows that attacks on sorcery are often convenient excuses for attacks on women. Sometimes the family of the accused is targeted too, especially if her family tries to protect her.
Whether or not they are the initial target of violence, children suffer, and often they become victims. According to ChildFund’s report, one little boy experienced so much abuse as an infant and toddler that sudden noises terrify him. His father attempted to punch his mother, but missed and hit him instead. The man then shook the baby to revive him. Often he was used as a weapon to beat his mother.
UNICEF reports that eight in 10 Guinean children experience emotional violence, seven in 10 experience physical violence and half of children experience sexual abuse. Over half of rape victims are under 16 years old, while 10 percent are under 8. At Haus Ruth, a Guinean women’s shelter, 60 percent of children coming to the shelter experienced abuse like their mothers did.
Abused children frequently struggle to learn and socialize, making their own futures more challenging, as well as their country’s. One factor in the flood of violence is that many people do not know it is wrong or illegal. For the people who do, there are few legal solutions. Between 228 villages, there are six village courts. There is also no faith in the police to prosecute criminals. Most of the time there are no female officers, and none of the officers have any training in responding to violence against women. They also have fewer resources than necessary, and, especially when witchcraft is involved, sometimes officers participate in the violence themselves.
The majority of men are also the breadwinners of their households, so women cannot afford for them to be sent to jail. Even when they do, some of them cannot afford the $10 medical certificate to provide evidence for the crime, if they can get to the hospital at all.
While PNG has representation in the United Nation’s groups devoted to development, it does not have anyone working with United Nations Women. The Solomon Islands are the only country among the Pacific Islands to have someone on the board.
That does not mean PNG is doing nothing. ChildFund has indicated a multi-tiered plan, beginning with educating men. Some men have indicated they are willing to change, like the man who beat his wife until he was studying to become a magistrate and learned it was illegal. The hope is to teach men to treat women as equals, beginning with the education system. Schools will begin teaching conflict resolution and open communication, along with respect for women.
The other piece is educating women and children about their options legally and medically. Swaziland has a program in place called a Shoulder to Cry On, which appoints women to educate children on their rights and help protect them. They also go door to door to educate people about abuse. PNG will enact a similar program, recruiting 50 volunteers to work in mobile health clinics, which will provide medical care, counseling and other support for victims.
Women interviewed by ChildFund also suggested buses to take women to the hospital, an appointed village supervisor to intervene in fights, and education for both sexes.
In the case of witchcraft, PNG has decriminalized sorcery, repealing a 1971 law. There is also a call for more active prosecution for those involved in violence against accused witches. This has also led to the suggestion of forming a National Human Rights Commission.
PNG also recently passed a Child Protection Act, which will begin to be enforced.
On a global scale, UNICEF calls for awareness of the issue, legal action, and making child welfare a priority — something Papua New Guinea is taking to heart.
– Monica Roth