Women in PNG still suffering from violence

Our mothers, our wives, our sisters and our daughters of Papua New Guinea have suffered, and are still suffering from gender based violence for far too long.

WHY? and What we can do?

According to many publications from International Organisations who have worked in Papua New Guinea (PNG) in the gender based violence against women programs, Papua New Guinea (PNG) is one of the most dreaded countries on planet earth to be a woman.  Domestic violence against women is prevalent in PNG. It is not by surprise that we regularly witness a domestic violence happening right in front of us in our communities. We have come to accept it as a cultural norm while the victim, our mother, wife, sister, and daughter silently carry the loads of continuous abuses as she has no help to eject herself out of the situation. Sexual violence of physically attack or forced sexual intercourse or sex performed in fear of violence was also reported as an ongoing silent issue. Other forms of gender based violence in PNG include gang rape, payback rape, rape in connection with tribal fighting and torture and murder of women suspected of sorcery. In most parts of the country, fear of rape and gang rape adversely affects women’s freedom of movement.  Young girls are especially vulnerable to sexual violence within the homes. Girls who do not live with their natural parents are particularly at risk of being abused.  According to a report by World Health Organization (2015), Papua New Guinea is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a woman, with an estimate of 70% of the women experiencing rape and assault in their lifetime.

Living as a woman in PNG comes at a price – the price of life itself. In a society where women are treated as second class citizens by its male counterparts, daily life is a struggle in itself. What can we do collaboratively at individual citizen’s level, at community level, religious level and at upstream government’s policy level to reduce gender based violence in PNG. To do that, lets look at some root causes of the violence against women. Being a Master of Public Health (MPH) student at Montclair State University, New Jersey in the United States, I am taking a course on ‘Health Disparities and Social Justice’ with GENDER as one of the topics. Gender, as I learned, is a social construct. The distinguished difference between sex and gender are that; ‘sex’ is the biological organ that determines a male from a female while ‘gender’ is created by society, a social construction of male and female’s roles as portrayed by society with certain expected behaviours associated with the gender. In our PNG’s Melanesian culture, we have a patriarchal society with male dominance culture for centuries. Throughout history, all over the world, society had seen women as lack of power, softer and weaker sex than men. Most developed countries had passed those stages in gender issues. However, in PNG, the very entranced daily cultural constructs of gender in our country had continually left our women and girls vulnerable and become victims in their every day life. Also with the fact that majority 70% of the country’s population are living in rural communities strictly practising the cultural constructed gender based behaviours.  

Our country’s culture being deeply entrenched in its traditional and cultural beliefs that women are subjected to their husbands’ command and control irrespective of their nature have also given the male the power over women. The bride price exchange in marriages have also added to this cause. It is well documented that more than 80% of women had been beaten by their husbands. The society by its cultural design has already predetermined the status of women in the community. The biological design of being a woman is neither her choosing and nor should her status, however, in PNG, the society has already predetermined her place in the community. And so are all these associated gender based disparities that inherently comes with it.

Our culture’s portraying of the roles of male and female gender are the driven forces and provocation of gender-based violence against women in our society, having great impacts on our women’s life and health, both physical, and emotional mental health, from the growing up as a girl to the time she becomes a wife and mother.  These women who have been subjected to such violence live under constant fear with physical scars and emotional memories that do not go away easily. It affects their daily lives greatly. Some live in shame and guilt of being raped and do not even speak out or seek help. Some of these innocent rape victims even get infected by HIV which wasn’t their fault at all. Some rape victims commit suicide in shame and guilt. Some of these violence breeds more violence as the relatives of the women retaliate, in turn breeding more violence.

Violence against women has reached such endemic proportion that holistic intervention programs needs to be implemented.  A coordinated effort by all sectors of the wider community is needed to curb this violence against women. There have been some efforts made by the concerned organizations especially NGOs and community based organizations towards greater gender equality and violence against women. There have been “safe houses” and hotline numbers that have been set up, but these has been of very little impact.  A part of the reason for this minimal success is that it is culturally well entrenched that man has superiority and dominion over women as officiated through the bride price system. And that man has right over his wife and normally referred to as in-house matters even if the woman is badly hurt. Simply because our cultural ways of viewing gender have not changed.

My first call for action at an individual level goes out to all the MALE folks, to respect our mothers, wives, sisters and daughters. Make it a safer home and society for our women. A woman is the homemaker and foundation of the family and building block of a nation. It is through a woman that a man is born. My call to all PNG men and boys to respect our women and change the perspectives of the way the girls and women are portrayed. At the community level; churches leaders, community or village leaders, peace and order committee leaders, village councillors and local level government presidents needs to be trained in gender and domestic violence to implement awareness to every community through those channel of leaderships at the rural out sketched of the country.

Whilst that is being implemented, other effective measures include change in current legislations allowing women abusers to be subjected to more stringent penalties than what we already have in our current laws such as extended jail sentences, and tougher laws against men who abuse women. Increase of safe houses for women and increase of law enforcement officers at all district level, especially with priority focus on women’s safety and security needs to be installed at all district centres. Health facilities and health personals also needs to be properly trained especially on the emotional and mental health needs of such victims.

As a long term solution, there really need to be a paradigm shift in the way the lives of women are viewed. The best way to curb this, I believe is at the upstream policy level to incorporate greater gender equality and respect for women in the form of education curricular; and increasing more schools in the rural communities. If there has to be a change, then the change has to come from the mindsets of the upcoming generation, and that is through education. Incorporating gender equality curricular into the education system will change the mindsets for the next generation once and for all. This old traditional ideology of inferiority of women needs to be erased off the history books of our future if Papua New Guinea will change its attitude towards its women folks.

Rose Andrew, PNG Fulbright Scholar, Master of Public Health, Montclair State University, NJ, USA. Email: andrewr1@montclair.edu


Dr Rose Andrew Putupai