Amnesty International visited three provinces of Papua New Guinea in October 2005 to research the issues and hear from local women.

This resulting report summarises an 87-page document, Papua New Guinea: Violence against women - Not inevitable, never acceptable (AI Index: ASA 34/002/2006), issued by Amnesty International (AI) on 4 September 2006.

When AI visited Papua New Guinea and spoke to women's organisations and gatherings of women, the organisation heard from and about women who had experienced grave forms of gender-based violence - a woman who had been burnt to the bone with a hot iron on suspicion of practicing witchcraft; a woman who had been raped by a group of men while walking alone in an area where tribal fighting was underway and then later severely beaten by her husband for the shame she had caused him; a woman who had been raped by her brother-in-law but then pressured not to pursue the case because of the hurt it would cause her sister and the family; and numerous women who had lacerations, scars, missing teeth, bruises and broken bones inflicted upon them by angry or drunken partners, often using bush knives or other conveniently located implements.

These are not isolated cases. Every day the local media delivers new stories of women being subjected to violence and exploitation. Available data on the scale and scope of violence against women is largely out of date or incomplete but, nonetheless, the picture it reveals is of widespread and pervasive violence against women and girls in the home and community.

In addition to directly violating women's rights to physical and mental integrity, gender-based violence in Papua New Guinea curtails women's freedom of movement and in turn limits women's access to education and employment and their ability to participate freely in public life. Further, violence against women is a contributing factor to the spread HIV/AIDS in Papua New Guinea.

The purpose of AI's visit to Papua New Guinea, however, was not to collect a litany of horror stories but rather to explore how the State and civil society are responding to gender-based violence against women. All States have a duty under international human rights law to prevent, prohibit and punish violence against women, regardless of the identity of the perpetrator. States also have a duty to provide redress, including compensation, to women who have suffered violence.

AI found that in practice the Government of Papua New Guinea has done little to fulfil this obligation. Although more than a decade has passed since Papua New Guinea ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and although the Constitution guarantees women equality, women continue to be denied their enjoyment of human rights because of gender-based discrimination, of which violence is an extreme form.

Survivors of Gender-Based Violence Neglected

Healthcare, counselling services, emergency accommodation and other forms of support for survivors of gender-based violence are almost non-existent outside the capital Port Moresby. Even where they do exist, referral protocols are not in place to ensure that women are in a position to access available resources.

"For us it is lose, and then lose again. First we suffer violence and then we have no health care to help us."

Woman from Mandi, East Sepik.

Likewise, it is almost impossible for women to obtain legal advice, particularly on matters relating to family law. The Public Solicitor's Office has extremely limited capacity, as do government welfare officers.

For most women who suffer gender-based violence, access to justice is illusory. The formal justice system offers women the promise of equality, protection and redress but in practice it is remote, inaccessible and ineffective. Although often simply ignored, crimes of violence against women are also frequently 'resolved' through informal dispute resolution mechanisms at the community level or by the state sanctioned Village Courts. The emphasis of these mechanisms is on the restoration of 'peace and order', which is often achieved at the expense of recognising women's human rights and frequently involves the enforcement of norms which do no afford women equality.

The government has done little to challenge the authority of these alternative systems of dispute resolution and in the case of the Village Courts, has both failed to provide appropriate training to Village Court officials and totally neglected oversight and accountability mechanisms.

Police Missing In Action

The police services have proved ineffective in combating violence against women. Police are mostly confined to reactive work, unable or unwilling to take steps designed to prevent gender-based violence, including by being present and visible in places where violence against women is known to occur. Women reporting incidents of gender-based violence are often sent home by police and told their problems are not of a criminal nature. Where complaints are recorded, investigations are primarily limited to collecting statements from those willing to attend the police station.

"My husband took a second wife and I had to live with them both in my house. When I came home one day and found everything in a mess, I said "this is my house and you should keep it clean." My husband broke my nose and hit me with timber over the back of my head. I went to the police to tell them to arrest him - they said they would do it but they didn't. Last month, my husband kicked me in the face and broke my teeth. I went to the police bleeding from my mouth and nose. They said they would go and get him and have a word with him but they have done nothing. I am tired of the police - they're useless."

Woman from Angoram, East Sepik.

In addition to their inaction, police have also been directly implicated in violence against women, with allegations ranging from the request of sexual favours from women as a pre-condition to investigating complaints to the gang rape of women in custody. Similarly, domestic violence within the police barracks is rampant and, contrary to official policy, is in practice tolerated.

Although police expressed frustration that women who reported crimes involving gender-based violence often later withdrew their statements, the police were unable to offer any evidence of steps they were taking to support women through the criminal justice process in a way which might give them the confidence to proceed. On the contrary, AI found that police: failed to avail themselves of information about support services in the community; failed to refer women to those services; failed to properly inform women about their rights and about the progress of investigations; failed to afford women any privacy or sensitivity when recording their statements and other information; failed to give consideration to the ongoing safety of the victim; and abrogated their responsibility by placing pressure on women reporting gender-based violence to make decisions themselves about whether and what charges they wanted to lay.

Further, although police also expressed frustration that cases involving gender-based violence were often ultimately resolved privately with the payment of compensation (rarely to the female victim herself), again police offered no evidence of any proactive strategy designed to ensure that perpetrators of gender-based violence were brought to account before a court of law. Many police seemed to accept that the payment of compensation precluded further action on their part. Some actively participated in negotiations.

Police weaknesses in responding appropriately and effectively to gender-based violence are indicative of a broader break down in basic policing. This is, in part, a result of limited police numbers and severe resource shortages. However, a history of human rights violations, coupled with effective impunity for perpetrators, also mean that police do not enjoy the support and cooperation of the community.

Police have received training on domestic violence and on human rights but there is no functioning accountability mechanisms which ensure that training is put into practice. Police are rarely held to account for grave human rights violations including extra-judicial executions, rape and other forms of torture, let alone for failures to properly investigate crimes reported to them. There is very little public confidence in the Internal Affairs Directorate which is responsible for overseeing the investigation of complaints against police, and most people do not bother to make complaints because they do not consider that their complaints will be acted upon.

Failure to Tackle Harmful Attitudes and Practices

The success of public education programs on women's human rights has been limited by the fact that such programs are ad hoc, not delivered uniformly to different regions and sub-sections of the community, take little account of existing levels of knowledge or previous programs, are not supported by the ongoing provision of information, advice or other services, and are generally not followed up by any assessment of their impact and success.

"There has been lots of awareness on violence towards women but practices have not changed. This is because the culture has not changed - even amongst educated people."

HIV/AIDS peer counsellor, Port Moresby.

Traditional customs, often distorted by changed circumstances, are still invoked to justify gender discrimination and subordination. "Bride price" has led to the commodification of women. It is a common belief that with the payment of bride price, women are effectively purchased by their husbands who are therefore entitled to control and 'discipline' their wives as they think necessary. Where bride price has been paid it is very difficult for a woman to leave a violent relationship.

"People know that violence against women is wrong but they hide under the cover of custom."

Human Rights Trainer, HELP resources, Wewak.

Polygamy is also a contributing factor to intimate partner violence. Polygamy often has the effect of pitting women against each other in a competition for their husband's resources and affords men even greater power in domestic relationships.

In their modern form, customs like bride price and the practice of polygamy, have provided men, who have access to cash and resources, with a license to be promiscuous and violent, often without accruing any longer term obligations to provide for the women and girls they effectively "purchase" or for the children born of the union.

Neither bride price nor polygamy nor other harmful cultural practices have been effectively addressed by the government as factors which contribute to violence against women, even though women's organizations consistently identify such practices as problematic.

Women overcoming challenges to respond to gender-based violence.

Women's organisations and women human rights defenders in Papua New Guinea do not accept that violence against women is either acceptable or inevitable. They have long been at the forefront of efforts to prevent gender based violence against women and to improve the services available to victims of gender-based violence.

Unfortunately, these women and the organisations they work with receive little support and recognition from the government. On the contrary, rather than working in partnership with government they are often required to fill a void left by dysfunctional government agencies, particularly in caring for survivors of gender-based violence. The problem is that without state support and funding, NGO service provision itself is necessarily ad hoc and intermittent, does not have national reach and is constantly dependent on and subject to shifts in donor priority. This in turn impacts on the effectiveness and sustainability of responses to violence against women. It also serves to distract from the fundamental fact that is the government, and not NGOs and women human rights defenders, which bears the primary obligation to implement CEDAW.

Barriers to Change

AI found that interviews with women human right defenders about the frustrations and difficulties they encountered in their work provided a clear lens through which to view some of the main obstacles to realising women's human rights in Papua New Guinea. These obstacles include:

  • Women are chronically underrepresented within all formal power structures. Women and women's organisations are generally confined to the periphery of public decision making and face a constant struggle for legitimacy and to get problems like gender-based violence on the "real" agenda.
  • Lack of state resources is consistently invoked as an excuse for the government's failure to address gender-based violence. There are no avenues through which women are able to demand a reasonable proportion of available resources, even if the resources available are limited.
  • Gender-based violence and other forms of gender discrimination are explained away or justified on ill-defined 'cultural' grounds. There is little recognition that, under international human rights law, 'culture' is no excuse and that, in fact, the government has an obligation to adopt all available measures to modify or abolish norms and practices which discriminate against women.
  • There is no effective protection for those who face threats to their personal safety as a result of their human rights activism. There is no recognition or support for human rights documentation, monitoring and advocacy which is not linked to service provision. Both these factors curtail targeted human rights advocacy.
  • There is an absence of independent mechanisms tasked with monitoring government compliance with human rights standards and empowered to demand accountability from government agencies.

Recent history has proven in Papua New Guinea that an acknowledgement of the problem and the passing of time alone will not bring about a decrease in violence against women nor overcome the barriers to women's enjoyment of their human rights. Without monitoring and scrutiny of the government's efforts to meet its obligations under CEDAW, and without campaigning for accountability and reform when the government has failed to live up to those obligations, institutional inertia and excuses will prevail.

The Report

Papua New Guinea: Violence against women - Not inevitable, never acceptable (AI Index: ASA 34/002/2006), issued by Amnesty International (AI) on 4 September 2006.