Joanne showed severe signs of malnutrition when she walked with her 10-month-old baby girl into the Family Support Center in Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea. She told the staff of Doctors Without Borders that she had left her baby with the child’s father the day before to go out and beg for food. When she returned home her daughter was distressed, she had a fever, and her genitals were swollen and bruised. Some time before, the child’s father had sexually abused Joanne’s eldest daughter, so Joanne instantly knew what had happened.
At the center, the staff of Doctors Without Borders tried to get both Joanne and her baby into short-term safe housing. After some time, a temporary room became available and the two moved in. Most safe houses in PNG don’t provide financial assistance and rules require that children are never left unattended. Unable to leave the house without her daughter in order to find work or beg, Joanne was left with no choice but to return home to her abusive partner.
According to a report published by Doctors Without Borders in March, Papua New Guinea has some of the highest rates of family and sexual violence in the world outside a conflict zone, with an estimated 70 percent of women experiencing rape or assault in their lifetime. In 2014 and 2015 only, Doctors Without Borders welcomed more than 3,000 survivors in the Center: 94 percent of the patients were female, over half of the survivors were children, and in three out of four cases the perpetrator was the partner or a family member.
“In Papua New Guinea, violence towards women seems to be the norm,” Ume Wainetti, National Coordinator of the Papua New Guinea Family and Sexual Violence Action Committee (FSVAC), told me during a brief interview. “It is a daily occurrence and it is accepted, for instance, that husbands can discipline wives by beating them up. Most sexual violations are not even reported because women are scared of the repercussions.”
The FSVAC was established in 2000 with the aim of eliminating physical, sexual, and psychological violence within families, and the resulting suffering. The approach of the committee has been to push for all sectors of society to play a part in the implementation of a long-term strategy. This has included ensuring that survivors can access the care and justice they require.
“We offer women legal support, counselling, and health care,” explained Wainetti. “Because of the sensitive nature of this program, however, we can’t freely advertise it. What we do instead is talk to women one by one and make sure that they know that it exists.”
In most cases, however, survivors are still not granted with essential protection. Those who want to flee violence, like Joanne, need access to safe houses. But with only six refuges in the country (five of which are in the capital) most survivors have no hope of finding an available room and escaping the violence. For children, gaining access to protection is even more difficult. None of the existing safe houses accepts boys older than seven and most of them don’t accept children at all if they flee without a guardian’s consent. Without financial independence, moreover, women have no way to feed themselves or their children and cannot afford to leave abusive partners.
Judicial impunity is another obstacle for those seeking justice and protection. In 2013, the country passed a family protection act, which made family violence a punishable crime. Despite the important step forward, however, very few perpetrators are brought to justice. Lack of access to courts and police, as well as failure by many officials to take violence against women seriously, contributes to the extremely low rates of conviction. This means that in most areas of the country, people still rely on traditional forms of justice to solve serious family and sexual violence cases. Compensation, either in the form of money or pigs, is often paid to the victims’ families, and perpetrators are free to remain within their communities, exposing survivors to the threat of repeated violence.
The country’s current extractive-led economic boom has in some cases worsened the situation for women. The rush for mineral resources, as well as the introduction and expansion of large-scale industries can change the gendered dynamics within a society. The increase in gender-based violence is one example; the large influx of men that is brought by extractive projects into communities can create security issues for women by exacerbating already discriminatory contexts.
The most notorious case was documented by Human Rights Watch at the Porgera Mine in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea between 2008 and 2010. In a 94-page document, the NGO reported 11 incidents of gang rape by security personnel employed at the mine. Most of the women interviewed by Human Rights Watch described scenes of true brutality and a social scenario in which rape survivors are too scared of the repercussions to ask for assistance or redress.
Since 2012, Ume Wainetti has been a Board Member of the Porgera Remediation Framework Association, working with women to obtain reparation for the attacks. In April 2015, after years of legal battles, the women in Porgera managed to receive compensation payments for the rape they suffered, but many have since argued that monetary compensation cannot be a fair answer to the violation of human rights.
Wainetti herself doesn’t support the practice: “If anything is given to women in the Highlands, men will control and distribute it among themselves. The victim is unlikely to receive any benefit or support. It also further commodifies women.”
She continued, “Although I do not agree [with compensation], once the money is given it’s their [women’s] right to determine how they should use it. In some cases, women were able to make investments and purchases that benefited them.”
Supporting women’s financial independence is at the core of the work of FSVAC, along with promoting education. One of the things that the Committee offers, for instance, is financial support for those women who want to restart their education or mothers who don’t have enough money to send their children to school. FSVAC is also involved in projects that have the aim of promoting sexual education among boys and men in order to make them aware of the issue and more willing to stand with women against violence and towards gender equality.
As Wainetti admitted, “We still have a lot of educational awareness to do, if we want things and attitudes to change.”
Camilla Capasso is a freelance journalist based in the U.K.