Ending the violence: Grassroots efforts to protect women and girls in Papua New Guinea

Published on Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Published by on Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Written by Orovu Sepoe, Special Contributor 

No human being should be treated as an object by another human being. To enjoy dignity and respect is fundamental to every person’s well-being. Yet this basic right is not being upheld for many women in Papua New Guinea (PNG).

The statistics tell a grim story.  A recent UN study in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville (AROB) in PNG found that 60% of men admitted to having raped a woman. However, in response, the President of AROB questioned the methodology of the research. Labelling the study flawed and imperfect, he went further, arguing that a matrilineal society like Bougainville would do everything possible to protect its womenfolk as women are the pillars of society and have control over customary land. In such a cultural context, the argument is that women are respected by all members of society. 

But isn’t this a romanticised view of culture, especially in a post-conflict society like Bougainville? It certainly contradicts the view of activists in the region who insist that violence against women and girls is endemic. 

In one recent incident on 5 November 2013, a 5-year old girl was raped by five young men in Port Moresby. The news of this horrendous act of violence reverberated across the nation, causing fear amongst women, and increased vigilance. Relatives of the girl were offered compensation for the crime which was committed by members of a certain tribal group. The crime prompted condemnation from ordinary citizens, as well as from the semi-government agency, Family Violence and Sexual Action Committee (FVSAC). The Executive Director of FVSAC, Ume Wainetti, along with a team of committed men and women make it their business to speak out against attacks on women and girls, often working in partnership with other NGOs. 

Law enforcement agencies, including the police, are struggling to deal with the issue. In one recent incident in Wewak town in East Sepik Province, an 18-year old girl was raped by armed police. The Pacific Network against Violence against Women and Girls (VAWG) is currently working with government authorities to bring the perpetrators to justice. The network is also tackling the unlawful detainment of family members of the victim and a vocal VAWG campaigner, Sophie Mange. 

In the face of these challenges, in a society whose contemporary culture generally condones violence, there is much to be done, especially in working with communities at the local level. 

Amidst all the gloom and doom, I was recently heartened to hear a village peace officer proudly telling me that “in our village we tell men that if they beat their wives or destroy their wife’s cooking pots and dishes, we (village peace officers) will arrest them and take them to the village court magistrate”. This change at the micro-level is a welcome development. 

The efforts of NGOs are also gradually bearing fruit. One such group is the Coalition for Change PNG Inc, whose members include prominent professional women. It facilitated the Family Protection Act of 2013, which was passed by Parliament on 18 September 2013. With the new law in place, the government is obligated to enforce it through the relevant law enforcement agencies and government institutions. 

Men-Against-Violence-Against-Women groups are also gradually increasing throughout PNG. This is another crucial step forward. 

At the national level,  the current parliament ―despite some opposition― has enacted a law carrying the death penalty for those involved in the killing of women accused of sorcery. Such incidents still occur in parts of PNG. Earlier this year a woman accused of sorcery was burned to death in the heart of Mt Hagen town. 

The stakes are high.  While violence against women and girls continues, the potential of half the human capital of PNG will remain stifled and undermined.  By ending attacks of all kinds, women can be free from fear and all Papua New Guineans stand to gain.