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PNG women subjected to horrifying domestic violence
Sydney Morning Herald - August 31, 2014
Years ago Mangai's former husband, a soldier, knocked out all her bottom teeth. She endured many beatings. The law wouldn't protect her and her family couldn't – just the bleak, garden-variety narrative shared by an estimated two-thirds of her PNG sisters.
But Mangai, now the President of the East Sepik Council of Women, resolved to rescue herself and others like her. Her voice is strong even without the megaphone she raises to broadcast her message. Mangai has turned out with her banners and her trusty band of activists for the penultimate performance of their marathon "16 Days of Action" campaign, Wewak's contribution to a global effort to highlight violence against women. It is no abstract, distant concern in her corner of the world. What is about to transpire is not on the program.
She leads her troupe past the busy marketplace toward the Wewak Town Police Station, a grim, grimy building, a couple of wrecked 4WD patrol trucks decomposing at the front door. PNG police are under-resourced, under-trained, often corrupt, frequently violent, and largely disinterested in the welfare of women and their rights to justice. Complaints of police raping women are commonplace, and they are notoriously rough on their own wives. (Only 10 per cent of their ranks are female.)
Mangai has a head of steam. Every day at the threadbare women's crisis centre she runs on the hill above town, she counsels and comforts bruised, battered, bleeding casualties. Mostly they are victims of domestic abuse, looking for refuge and maybe help with a protection order – short-term fixes, as few have the means or possibility of escape. But this weekend there was also the case of 18-year-old Helen (not her real name).
About 4am two days earlier, on Saturday, December 7, police raided Helen's village, a couple of hours walk from the nearest road, looking for her father – on the run over a fatal land dispute. Helen later told Mangai that the raid commander said his men had worked hard to recapture her father, and that they were "finishing off their work" by raping her.
She says she was taken by four police, urged on by their commander, then given to a fifth man who also raped her, locked her in a sago-palm house and set it alight. She escaped and fled to her aunty down on the coast.
Even the wildest reaches of PNG are now covered by rapidly expanding mobile phone networks. Most people buy scratch-cards of credit from street stalls, a few kinas' worth at a time. The aunt calls Florence Parinjo, head of the Wewak chapter of the women's council.
"I advised them 'tell the little girl not to wash, not to do anything, look after her well and bring her to me'," Parinjo says. Her relatives ferried her by boat to Wewak. "She was in torn clothes. She was traumatized... scared, not speaking well. And injured internally. I called [the hospital matron] and told her she was coming. I called Sophie Mangai."
Parinjo also called a policewoman from Wewak's sexual offences squad, who told her that she couldn't come as she had no vehicle. This is a daily hurdle encountered by the fledgling national network of family and sexual crime units, the support and expansion of which have lately been one of the key priorities of Australian aid efforts. She would see her on Monday – two days away.
Meanwhile, Helen had to flee her hospital bed when some policemen – maybe those involved in the alleged attack – came looking for her. Nurses scrambled together 50 kina to pay for an ambulance to sneak her out. "They rescued her in the night," says Parinjo.
And so it is that on Monday morning, Helen waits nervously on the edge of the market crowd with her bubus (grandparents) and Parinjo. They look for a signal from the policewoman that it is safe to come and report the rape.
Meanwhile, Mangai is shouting out. She challenges the provincial police chief to come out and talk to her and the women of Wewak about the violence they endure and what might be done about it.
Suddenly the station commander – the man alleged to have led the raid on Helen's village – rushes out of the police station.
Witnesses say that in full view of the crowd he pulls an M16 rifle from a vehicle, climbs on to a dinghy and fires off three shots. People flee in all directions, but Mangai walks towards him. Parinjo, a short distance away, watches as the officer breaks the megaphone, then Mangai's spectacles, then starts on Mangai.
"He just bashed me and beat me and I fell on the step in front of the police station. He was threatening me. He said he will kill me," Mangai recalls. He kicked her. "I said 'you can kill me in the name of women, because I'm talking about women's rights, and I don't give a shit'. I wasn't scared, because I knew I had done nothing wrong."
Her friend Parinjo was terrified. At one point "he grabs Sophie by the meri blouse and punched her again saying 'you are under arrest' and then he points the gun at me and says 'I'm going to shoot you'. Parinjo scrambles under a truck and takes off with Helen. They remain in hiding for a week. Helen is today still in hiding.
Mangai and Helen's grandparents are locked up by the commander for a week, with charges – illegal assembly – only laid on the last day. In that week something extraordinary happens. The tribal drums of social media begin beating out a campaign. Activists, agitators and citizens in PNG, Fiji, Australia, New Zealand and beyond take up the cause.
It's front page news in the national Post Courier, which has lately given violence and women's issues more visibility under editor Alexander Rheeney, and in the fledgling online news service PNG Edge (now PNG Loop). Its editor, Titi Gabi, and her female-dominated newsroom give priority to exposing failures of justice, hot topics with their growing young audience.
Parinjo, still in hiding with Helen, is interviewed on ABC Radio Australia. The online campaign petitions the East Sepik Governor and former Prime Minister, Wewak's own Sir Michael Somare, to intervene and lobbies his influential daughters.
The then Police Commissioner describes the allegations as "shocking and shameful" and dispatches a specialist team from Port Moresby to investigate. The Prime Minister, Peter O'Neill, posts a statement on Facebook declaring the case a priority. "Violence against women in PNG will not be tolerated and I personally pass on my sympathies to the victim. I am also concerned by the allegations of another woman being arrested due to protesting [the crime]".
Despite rumours that the investigation is cut short because the funding got lost, its head tells Radio New Zealand that he has found evidence of police "malpractice and inaction". In February the Wewak station commander is charged with assaulting Sophie Mangai and, shortly afterwards, with rape. Two probationary constables, an auxiliary policeman and a civilian also face charges of rape, arson and unlawful wounding. The matters are pending in the National Court.
Activists and citizens, capitalizing on the nexus of exploding social media and community distress in PNG on issues of safety, police behaviour, official accountability and violence, have succeeded in shaming police, prosecutors and politicians into action.
Optimists might find hope in this narrative. Indeed, in the months since, there have been a spate of stories in which individual cases of abuse – of women and children – which have been highlighted in headlines, triggered social media outrage and compelled responses at the most senior levels. Might new media become the conduit to meaningful change in PNG?
A bleaker view recognizes how much hard work, inspired energy and luck it took to bring what happened into the light, and asks how many similar horrors remain hidden.
The episode unfolds as a powerful parable of how distant justice still is from the women of Papua New Guinea, graphically exposing some of the obstacles they face. It also illustrates the resourcefulness and courage of individuals striving for security and the desperation driving them.
PNG ranks in the bottom cluster of United Nations indexes on human development, barely shifting in the past decade despite a spectacular resources boom. On gender equity – measuring women's empowerment, labour market participation and reproductive health – it keeps company with the likes of Zimbabwe and Tanzania. Maternal deaths, a merciless barometer of women's status, are among the worst in the world, doubling over a decade, according to a national survey published in 2006.
As an expert Australian National University submission to an Australian parliamentary committee recently observed, family and sexual violence in PNG "is widespread, pervasive and highly damaging". Medecins Sans Frontieres, a long-time player in PNG and well positioned to evaluate it against other flashpoints, argues that in some locations, the reality is akin to a war zone.
Much of the violence occurs within families, but it comes in many guises – tribal, opportunist, cultural, institutional, spiritual (sorcery and witchcraft-related, involving the torture and sometimes burning of those accused). Men too suffer, and children, but women endure the worst of it.
In a nation of more than 800 languages and cultures the drivers, incidence, extremity and visibility of assaults varies wildly from place to place. But perpetrators across the country can rest assured that whatever they do, chances are they will get away with it. A culture of impunity underwrites their comfort.
Police are disinterested; prosecutions are rare; few survivors have the wherewithal to leave abusive relationships or dangerous communities; formal courts are often many days' walk away from the villages where 80 per cent of the population live; traditional lore meted out by village courts is more preoccupied with brokering peace than with delivering justice.
An analysis comparing sexual violence cases dealt with by PNG's Family Support Centre in Laeat Angau Hospital (Lae) in 2010 and prosecutions through the Lae National Court in 2012 determined that the odds of a criminal conviction in an adult sexual violence case were 1:338. This calculation was in fact seen as too generous given that many cases never made it even as far as the hospital.
For more than 30 years the PNG Government has talked about strengthening justice but achieved little, although it finally last year unanimously passed family protection legislation, first drafted back in the early 1990s and finally signed into force in April. This criminalised domestic violence, strengthened protection orders, and directed police to pursue family and sexual violence. It is a priority few yet recognise.
Epidemic violence in PNG is an issue that should – and does – receive the attention of the Australian government, PNG's most important donor. Australia has made large investments in PNG's development, in supporting its legal system and police service, as well as in specific measures meant to deal with family and sexual violence – an increasing, explicit focus of programs in recent years. It is now determining the shape of the next four years of engagement in issues of law and justice in PNG.
Officials understand that this is more than a humanitarian concern. According to a jointly prepared PNG Country Gender Assessment conducted in 2012 by the World Bank, The Asian Development Bank, the UN and the Australian and PNG governments, "the high prevalence of such violence in PNG is a cross-cutting issue, with very serious implications for public health and social policy, economic development, and justice and law enforcement".
This is the line taken in the ANU expert submission to the Australian Parliament in June, arguing that "family and sexual violence must be recognised as a long-term human rights problem and constraint on development that requires sustained and serious engagement and investment from aid donors, including Australia, and the PNG government".
The submission champions Australian support for local efforts to embed a safety net of practical, immediate support for victims of violence, including mechanisms to track cases and put them before police and prosecutors. A model program, with $3 million of Australian money, is about to be launched in Lae.
While recognising the Australian Government's new emphasis on economic development in determining its aid agenda – "aid for trade" – it cautions the Parliamentary Joint Standing Committee investigating issues confronting women and girls in the region that "economic development and women's economic empowerment in isolation will not address family and sexual violence".
[This report is based on a forthcoming Lowy Institute Analysis – "Violence against women in PNG: How men are getting away with murder".]