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Crying Meri: Violence against women in Papua New Guinea

Crying Meri

Papua New Guinea is one of few places in the world where violence against women is seen as normal. According to resent statistics from the PNG National Department of Health, 68% 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. Some qualitative surveys show that in some highland regions, almost all women (98%) report being sexually abused. One of the world's leading humanitarian charities, Medicins Sans Frontieres, claim that they are dealing with levels normally only experienced in war zones.

In PNG a big percentage of local men don’t respect “meris” (“women” in Tok Pisin), constantly beating them, often using bush knives and axes. While in traditional villages such attitudes toward women can be attributed to tribal culture, today in Port Moresby violence against women shocks modern society.

The main danger comes from the Raskol gangs that rule the settlements in the capital city. Every day most of the dozens of crimes are reported to be against women from 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 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 pass through some kind of “initiation” – rape a woman. And it is better if a boy kills her afterwards, there will be less problems with the police”, says 32 years old Moses, who had 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. In case of an unexpected death in a village, its residents accuse a random woman (usually a relative of the dead person) and torture her, forcing to admit that she is a witch. Many of these "punishments" result in the victim’s death. Even if the woman survives, she would be expelled from the community permanently. Despite this widespread violence, the PNG Government does not have a program to help victims of sorcery-related violence nor provides any shelter for those women. 

It is very rare that cases of violence against women are brought to court. Most assailants are kept in a prison 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, has been fighting for many years for the “non drop policy” in such cases. She says that most women would rather tolerate beating and coerced sex, than be left without the support of men. “The problem is that men start feeling unpunished and continue treating their (even pregnant) wives with a greater cruelty. 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”.

Another reason why perpetrators are not brought to justice is money. In order to report an assaulter to the police, first of all, abused women have to obtain a medical statement, which is not given for free. Also a woman has to buy fuel for the police car, as nowadays police stations do not receive much financial support from the Government. Fuel costs may be around 40-50 kina (about 20-25 USD, depends of the distance) and in rural areas, where people make 30 kina a month, women cannot afford such expenses. Furthermore there is no guarantee that police will not take a bribe from a landed perpetrator to release him later.

According to the Family Support Center’s statistics, increasing cases of violence against women are occurring in middle class families, where lawyers, policemen or even church pastors abuse their wives. PNG men believe, that after they have paid a bride price (local pre-wedding tradition when bride’s parents receive payments from groom's family) they fully possess a woman and treat her the way as they treat a purchased vehicle. In most cases domestic violence occurs because of alcoholism and jealousy - men in Papua New Guinea often have three or four wives at the same time. Rejected and beaten women are often kicked out of their homes and onto the street, where they then became easy targets for Raskol gangs. The "lucky" ones find their way to Port Morsby's City Mission refugee center, where they can live up to 3 months and receive support and care from social workers and psychologists. However, the City Mission can shelter only 30 women at the same time. The rest of the abused female population of PNG capital has nowhere to go. Most women in Papua New Guinea continue being victims of abuse, and only a few fight for their rights.

These photographs capture the impacts of violence against women in Papua New Guinea and were taken in 2012 in Port Moresby, Lae and the Highlands Region. The goal of this photo project is to raise awareness on this issue to improve assistance and support mechanisms to victims of gender based violence in Papua New Guinea.