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Crying Meri: Violence against women in Papua New Guinea

Crying Meri

Papua New Guinea is a dangerous place for women or ‘meri’ as they are called in Tok Pisin, the local language. Violence against women is seen as normal. A large percentage of local men don’t respect ‘meris,’ constantly beating them, often using bush knives and axes. Men believe that after they have paid a bride price - following local tradition when a bride’s parents receive payments from the groom’s family - they fully possess a woman and can treat her the way they treat a purchased vehicle. According to recent statistics from the Papua New Guinea National Department of Health, more than two thirds of women have experienced physical or sexual violence, one third were subjected to rape and 17% of sexual abuse involved girls between the ages 13 and 14. 

One of the world’s leading humanitarian charities, Doctors Without Borders, claim that they are dealing with levels of gender violence normally only experienced in war zones.

The main danger comes from the Raskol gangs that rule the settlements in the capital city. Every day most of the crimes committed are against women from the Port Moresby slum areas. Peter Moses, one of the leaders of “Dirty Dons 585” Raskol gang, states that raping women is a “must” for the young members of the gang. In some New Guinean tribes when a boy wants to become a man, he should go to enemy’s village and kill a pig. After that his community will accept him as an adult. In industrial Port Moresby women have replaced pigs. “First, a young gang member should steal something, money or a car — and he will be admitted to the gang.After that he must prove that his intentions are serious and he must rape a woman to complete his initiation. And it is better if a boy kills her afterwards, there will be less problems with the police,” says Moses, 32, who claims to have raped more than 30 women himself.

Often violence against women in PNG takes savage forms. Sorcery-related brutality is very common in many provinces, but mostly in rural areas of the Highlands Region. Locals believe in ‘sanguma,’ witches, or ‘puri-puri,’ black magic. In case of an unexpected death in a village, residents often accuse a woman or sorcery, usually a relative of the dead person, and torture her, forcing her to confess that she is a witch.

The torture can involve cutting with machetes and axes. It may include burning with hot metal implements. Many of these ‘punishments’ are public and result in the victim’s death. Sometimes women are burnt alive. Even if the woman survives, she is expelled from the community permanently and cannot return home. Despite the widespread violence, the authorities of Papua New Guinea do not have a program to help victims of sorcery-related violence or to provide any shelter for these women. Cases of sorcery-related violence are rarely brought to court and sometimes even the police are involved in witch-hunts, supporting the perpetrators not the victims.

Violence against women is rarely brought to court. Most assailants are kept in a cell at the police station for a couple of days and then released. The police claim the low rate of convictions stems from the fact that victims often fear filing a statement or that many wives take pity on their husbands and insist on the termination of the case. Tessie Soi, a social worker and the director of the Family Support Center in Port Moresby’s General Hospital, says that most women would rather tolerate beating and coerced sex than be left without the support of a man. “The problem is that men start feeling unpunished and continue treating their wives with a greater cruelty, even when pregnant. This often results in a loss of the child or death of a woman. That’s why I insist that once violence has been reported to the police, there is no way back”.

Perpetrators also escape justice because of money. To file an assault report with the police, an abused women must first obtain a medical statement, which costs. Also, a woman has to buy fuel for the police car, as nowadays police stations do not receive enough financial support. Fuel costs are high and, in rural areas, women cannot afford the expense. Furthermore there is no guarantee that police will not take a bribe from a landed perpetrator to release him later.

Many cases of domestic violence occur because of alcoholism and jealousy, as men in Papua New Guinea often have two or three wives at the same time. Rejected and beaten women are often kicked out of their homes and onto the street, where they then become easy targets for Raskol gangs. 

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