Two-thirds of women in PNG suffer domestic abuse

​When the UN introduced the millennium development goals (MDGs) in 2000, its third pledge – to promote gender equality and empower women – promised to herald worldwide reform

But 15 years later, and with 67% of women in the country suffering domestic abuse, progress in Papua New Guinea has been far slower than hoped.

Though scant wide-scale studies have been undertaken, statistics show that more than half of women there have been raped. Reports have estimated that 60% of men had participated in gang rape at least once, while in certain Highland provinces the rate of violence against women was 100%.

Educating men on the importance of gender equality is a key way development workers hope the sustainable development goals (SDGs) will differ from their predecessors. The fifth goal, which makes the same promise to “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls”, states that violence against women must be eradicated and that harmful practices such as child marriage and female genital mutilation can have no place in any society.

The continued absence of men from this conversation, however, is stark. “The new goals might have a better chance of succeeding, but there needs to be some initiatives around men. You can’t have gender equality without working with men, and I would have thought that lesson would have been learnt by now,” says Adam Everill, founder of sport-based anti-violence initiative Equal Playing Field. “Violence against women has been seated as a women’s problem for so long, and so has gender equality – it’s really bizarre to me. Men have to be part of the solution.”

Though expanding the horizons of gender equality initiatives might help, outreach workers remain concerned that – just as the MDGs for equality proved ineffectual in bringing down rates of violence – the global goals may suffer a similar fate.

“Domestic violence is endemic, and is not taken seriously by the government,” says Judy Atkinson, patron of the We Al-li Trust, which provides health and trauma outreach workshops across Papua New Guinea and Australia. “Violence against women seems to be rising [yet] it is the NGOs and aid agencies who are focused on issues of women’s equality and empowerment, with little clear direction coming from the government.”

Many had hoped that the 2013 family protection bill criminalising domestic violence would signal a renewed political system committed to fighting anti-female abuse, but no further action has been introduced and rates remain unchanged.

“It’s going to be a real struggle for my country to achieve these goals. They’re wonderful to have, but we need political will,” explains Philma Kelegai, who co-founded women’s advocacy group the Leniata Legacy after the brutal murder of Kepari Leniata in 2013. The 20-year-old was accused of sanguma (or sorcery) – a major cause of gender-based violence in Papua New Guinea – and was publicly tortured and burned to death on a pile of tyres in Mount Hagen.

“There’s a lot of conversation, but it hasn’t trickled down into actual change yet,” Kelegai says. “The attitudes are still the same – they’re very much entrenched. Unless we change these mindsets, we won’t get anywhere.”

The government’s prioritisation of resources has also raised concerns that provisions suggested by the SDGs will be not be adequately funded. Willie Doaemo of community development programme Seeds Theatre Group cites the Pacific Games – hosted this year in Port Moresby – as a prime example of its misplaced financial considerations.

“While world-class sporting arenas spring up in Papua New Guinea’s capital to impress the world, the rest of the country is dying in vast numbers because of a lack of attention by those in control,” he says, adding that such gestures “question where our priorities lie as a nation”.

Catherine Bedford, a Londoner who has spent the last 18 months volunteering with VSO as a family and sexual violence nurse at Modilon general hospital in Madang province, says that the paucity of these provisions is always in view. Bedford frequently treats women who have had fingers and limbs severed, who have received head injuries from stones or pieces of wood, as well as victims who have been raped during gang initiation ceremonies.

“Papua New Guinea is a very rich country in terms of access to money and natural resources. But often that money is not spent in a way that is productive for most people,” she says. “In Modilon hospital, we often have blackouts where there’s no power and no water. Running hospital systems when you’re working with blood and trying to keep things clean and people free from more infections than they came in with is very difficult.”

With a lack of joined-up thinking around the UN’s development initiatives, it remains to be seen whether the SDGs will jumpstart the focus on equality that has been lacking for so long.

“Empowerment and equality don’t stand alone. They exist through the grace of equal educational opportunities, the provision of adequate health services, the protection of the weak and vulnerable in society, and justice and law reforms,” says Doaemo. “There is good work being done here but the there is still a long way to go. We are only at the tip of the iceberg.”

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