In November 2017, in the Northern Highlands of Egna, a six-year-old girl was burned and cut after being accused of witchcraft by her community. Her mother had died 3 years prior as a result of being publicly set on fire, burning to death in Mount Hagen. No one has been prosecuted for these crimes. While this case is shocking and deplorable, sadly it is unlikely to shock the women of Papua New Guinea where violence against women and a system designed to oppress them is still flourishing.
The Scale of the Violence Against Women and Girls
It is estimated that more than two thirds of women in PNG have experienced violence within the home. The societal attitude towards gendered violence is one of relative acceptance, where men will speak openly about violence they have committed towards females. In the highlands areas, 80% of men admit to committing sexual violence against their partner. A 2013 study by Rachel Jewkes on behalf of the UN also found that on the island of Bougainville, 41% of men admit to committing sexual violence or coercion towards a non-partner. When it comes to women’s daily lives out in the community, the picture of violence does get any better. A 2014 UN study reported that when using public transport more than 90% of women had experienced some form of violence.
Violence against women and girls can take many forms, being sexual or physical, but the most common forms include punching, kicking, burning and cutting, which make up between 80-90% of injuries treated at clinics.
Witch hunts are still an active part of the social landscape in PNG, especially in the Highlands. The United Nation estimate that 200 witch killings occur every year. The government recognises forms of witchcraft as legitimate, both “white magic” and “black magic”. White magic consists of practises related to healing, fertility and good health, whereas the purpose of black magic is to cause harm and disturbance. Those convicted of practising black magic can receive a jail sentence of up to 2 years. The people typically accused of witchcraft are women and girls. Witch hunts are usually carried out by the community (both men and women) or groups of men. The target of the witch hunts are often vulnerable women and girls, either young women or widows or older women without adult sons.
Nowhere to Turn
Violence has long been a criminal offense in PNG, and since 2013, domestic violence is also illegal. However, the country has such a deep rooted issue with violence against women that little to no progress has been made. Women who are victims of violence will often find the police to demand money before listening to them and in rural areas they are frequently ignored altogether. When police to listen to cases of domestic violence, it still doesn’t mean attackers will be brought to justice. Traditional apologies are still offered as a form of resolution for offenses in village courts.
Abortion is illegal in PNG which forces many victims of unwanted pregnancy or rape to seek out unsafe alternatives to modern medical abortion techniques. Women who chose to abort their pregnancy are playing a risky game of restitution, prison, or health complications and maybe even death.
There is a severe lack of a support system in place to help elevate victims out of their situation. The country is lacking in shelters for women, safe houses, counselling or helplines to reach out to.
Violence Against Women is Underreported
It’s estimated that cases of violence against women are underreported. This is due to the legitimisation of the violence within society and the unwillingness of the authorities or government to take a more active role to tackle the issue. Education remains a huge barrier for girls and women in PNG. There is a high level of sexual abuse and harassment towards school age girls in the education system, often by male teachers. This has resulted in girls becoming much less engaged with the education system. Additionally, girls are often expelled due to pregnancy. This all accumulates to account for the picture we see today where girls are much less likely to complete education than boys. This in turn means women struggle to elevate themselves out of poverty and out of a vulnerable position where their abusers make up the majority of the countries authority figures.
What is Being Done?
The UN has announced PNG as a priority country within its Women’s Strategic Plan. The focus of the plan is to economically and politically empower women in order to tackle the issue.
The PNG Government also announced 25 million Kina (USD7.8m) in funding to end gender-based violence. However, at present there is a lack of transparency around the plan and its strategic goals.