Facing violence, torture and death is a daily reality for many women and girls in Papua New Guinea (PNG).
Amnesty International researchers recently visited the country and found that despite new laws making sexual and domestic violence a crime, attacks against women and girls at the hands of family members and strangers are still being perpetrated.
These men admit to committing rape and armed robbery. They say two-thirds of their victims are women © Vlad Sokhin
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Firstly, where is Papua New Guinea?
Situated north of Australia in the Coral Sea, PNG is comprised of the eastern half of the island of New Guinea and approximately 600 other islands.
With a population of over 7 million, PNG is the largest island in the South Pacific, both in terms of land area and population size.
What is the current situation for PNG women?
Although reliable crime statistics are not available, there is little doubt that PNG faces an epidemic of serious violent crime, including armed robbery, murder, gang rape and home invasion.
When we spoke to women in Goroka, in the Eastern Highlands of PNG, an overwhelming number of women had experienced violence, either by a family member, people in their community or strangers.
In some regions, particularly in the Highland areas, violence is considered by many to be a valid way for men to assert authority over partners they think are lazy, insubordinate or argumentative.
Domestic gender-based violence takes a number of forms, the most shocking of which include rape, being burnt with hot irons, broken bones and fractures, kicking and punching and cutting with bush knives.
Women in PNG are at high risk of rape, gang rape and other forms of sexual assault and many spend their daily life in constant fear.
19-year-old Julie was raped by a local gang during a trip to the city of Lae where she was going to be fitted with a new prosthetic leg. She later found out she was pregnant.
Young girls are also at great risk of rape. Six-year-old Julie was kidnapped by four men in Lae. They raped her for eight hours and then left her on the street. Her injuries are so severe that she can barely walk and can never have children.
Sexual violence in PNG is:
- sometimes fuelled by drugs and alcohol
- opportunistic in the sense that victims are chosen by circumstance and unexpected access
- sometimes used to ‘teach women a lesson’ or as punishment for previous rejection.
Belief in witchcraft is prevalent in rural PNG and murder for suspected sorcery is a common practice.
Amnesty International research has found that in PNG sorcery claims are often used to commit violence against women, but the precise number of cases is still unknown as many go unreported for fear of retribution against those accused and their family members and friends.
Sangumas – witches or sorcerers – are accused of using witchcraft to cause natural disasters and death. While some deaths are the cause of a strict belief in witchcraft, others are crimes of vengeance.
The punishment of victims can include being burned at the stake, buried alive, hanged, stoned, shot, beheaded or mutilated.
In February, 20-year-old Kepari Leniata, a mother of one, was stripped, tied-up, doused in petrol and burnt alive by relatives of a young boy she was accused of using witchcraft to kill.
In April, despite police attempting to negotiate with an angry mob, a crowd beheaded a woman they were accusing of sorcery, in front of villagers in the town of Lopelle.
Rasta was accused of sorcery by the people in her village after a young man died. She lost her hand when she was attacked by a crowd of people at his funeral © Vlad Sokhin
What’s being done about it?
Although appropriate criminal law provisions are largely in place, that obligation is not currently met in PNG because the police frequently fail to investigate complaints relating to incidents of violence against women and often turn away those who have suffered violence.
1971 Sorcery Act
In April this year the controversial 1971 Sorcery Act, which criminalised the practice of sorcery, giving the notion of legitimacy and leading to increase in false accusations, was repealed.
Family Protection Bill
On 18 September 2013, the PNG Government passed the Family Protection Bill 2013 with a landslide 65-20 vote. Criminalising domestic violence the Act provides a level of protection to women and children vulnerable to violence and other human rights abuses in the home.
Women human rights defenders in PNG
Women human rights defenders in PNG have long been at the forefront of efforts to prevent violence against women and to improve the services available to victims.
Women human rights defenders lead key initiatives in the country, including:
- campaigns to increase public awareness about gender-based violence in PNG
- providing human rights training to government employees and community leaders
- projects dedicated to supporting and providing protection to victims of intimate partner violence, sexual violence and other forms of gender discrimination.
What needs to happen?
A number of things would improve the situation for women and girls in PNG, including:
- sending a clear message to perpetrators and victims alike that abuses of women’s human rights are not acceptable and will be dealt with effectively by the criminal law
- upholding the legislation of the Family Protection Bill 2013
- training police personnel, governmental agencies and service providers on the issue of violence against women
- providing legal aid to survivors of domestic violence so that they can pursue justice
- funding safe houses, medical centres and psychological care for victims of violence
- educating the public that family violence is never acceptable.
What is Amnesty International doing?
In addition to our ongoing campaigning on violence against women and girls in PNG, we are raising funds to continue our work.
In the short term we aim to help those in immediate danger of violence by providing rescue, relocation and shelter.
To achieve long-term change we will work with local activists on the ground to end gender-based violence and pressure the PNG Government to ensure the implementation of legislation to protect women and girls.
What can you do?
By donating to our Women Not Witches fundraising appeal you can help prevent further violence and death against women and girls in PNG.