VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN IN PAPUA NEW GUINEA
DANGER ON THE STREETS
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. 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 big towns and 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.
DANGER IN THE HOME
In Papua New Guinea a large percentage of local men don’t respect ‘meri,’ 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.
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. 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.
DANGER IN SUPERSTITION
Sorcery-related violence is widespread in Melanesia. In Papua New Guinea it can take a savage form. In the Highlands Region witch-hunts occur in almost every province. Locals believe in ‘sanguma,’ witches, or ‘puri-puri,’ black magic. In case of an unexpected death in a village, residents often accuse a woman of 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.
The situation in Papua New Guinea is slowly changing. Women are raising their voice and can’t be ignored anymore by the local authorities.
In 2013 the PNG Parliament repealed the country’s controversial Sorcery Act that provided protection for the perpetrators accused of sorcery-related violence if they were acting to stop ‘witchcraft’.
The country’s Prime Minister, Peter O’Neill, publicly apologized to all the women of PNG for the high rates of domestic and sexual violence in the country. On September 18, 2013, Papua New Guinea passed the Family Protection Bill that, for the first time in PNG history, criminalizes domestic violence.
At the same time the PNG government reinstated the death penalty, which will apply to a long list of crimes including sorcery-related murder and rape. International organizations like Amnesty International and local human rights defenders believe that it is a step backward.
“Our work could become even more dangerous after the death penalty was brought back,” says Monica Paulus, who has worked with victims of sorcery-related- violence for several years in the Highlands Region of PNG. “Now the perpetrators will fear that they might be sentenced to death and will do everything to eliminate all the witnesses to their crimes, including those people who help the survivors.”
It is still too early to say whether the new laws will actually protect women or not. In a country where tribal rules and customs still hold sway in many remote communities, it will likely take years to stop injustice. But now, people are aware because local papers and social media are filled almost every day with horrific news about violence against women and girls. Still, Papua New Guinea remains one of the most dangerous places on Earth to be a woman.
CRYING MERI DIARIES
“Crying Meri Diaries” are my visual diaries that I wrote during several trips to Papua New Guinea, while working on the “Crying Meri” project.
With words and Polaroid images I kept a record of my thoughts and impressions, writing down dialogues with victims and perpetrators, and otherwise capturing the moments and events that surrounded me every day.
Crying Meri: Violence Against Women in Papua New Guinea is a long-term documentary project by Vlad Sokhin. Vlad started documenting gender-based and sorcery-related violence in PNG in January 2012. In the following three years he worked on his own and in collaboration with several print/online media companies, the United Nations and international NGOs.
In addition to the main photo project, Vlad worked on several multimedia features and short documentaries that bring additional focus to the horrific culture of violence towards women and girls in PNG:
– Crying Meri. A multimedia film that tells the story of Dini Korul from Chimbu Province, a woman who was accused of sorcery and brutally tortured. It’s a harrowing, unflinching account, but it’s a story that needs to be told inside and outside a country where women are literally dying to be heard. The film was produced by duckrabbit and Vlad and published online by The Guardian.
– Sorcery Related Violence in Papua New Guinea (10:21 min). A documentary film produced by Vlad for UN Women in 2013 (to be released soon).
– Helen’s story and Helen’s recovery. Two short multimedia pieces that tell the story of Helen Michael, a woman from Vlad’s Crying Meri photo project. Helen was attacked by a stranger who bit her lip off. Two years later ChildFund Australia supported Helen throughout the process of hospitalisation. Doctors from Interplast Australia & New Zealand performed plastic surgery and fixed Helen’s lip. Vlad produced videos for ChildFund Australia, which were used in ChildFund’s campaign against gender based violence in PNG.
– Domestic Violence in Papua New Guinea. Another short multimedia film Vlad produced for ChildFund Australia’s campaign against gender based violence in PNG. This video shares Taina’s story, a male community leader in PNG who regrets having once been a violent man. It also features Helen and Kay, two women who hope that people will hear their stories and take action.
– Images from Crying Meri were adopted by the United Nations for educational campaigns and used by Amnesty International, Oxfam, ChildFund, World Vision, The Resolution Project, OilSearch Health Foundation and other organisations that support victims of gender-based violence in PNG. They appeared in online campaigns, protest marches, PNG National Haus Krai, and in United Nations and NGOs reports and magazines.
– The project was exhibited and screened around the world, including the Parliament House of Papua New Guinea; Australian Parliament House in Canberra; Visa Pour L’Image photojournalism festival (France); Head On photo-festival (Australia); the United Nations exhibition in University of Papua New Guinea; VII Agency Gallery (USA); PNG Human Rights Film Festival; Chiang Mai Documentary Arts Festival and others.
– Although the Crying Meri project is finished, Vlad continues to work on gender-based violence issues in PNG and elsewhere.