PNG facelifts for APEC but neglects gender-based violence

Issues being handled in Papua New Guinean village courts ... a common sight. Image: Claire Harbage/NPR

The Papua New Guinean government has been working tirelessly to clean up its capital city in preparation for APEC, instead of attending to serious issues such as gender-based violence. Pauline Mago-King of Asia-Pacific Journalism reports on the challenge.

With just three months to go until the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders summit in November, the Papua New Guinean government has been buckling down to preparations.

The capital of Port Moresby is going through a series of facelifts ranging from continual road upgrades to clean up campaigns.

While these infrastructure developments are needed, they cannot conceal the social issues currently plaguing Papua New Guineans.

One serious issue is the alarming rate at which violence, more specifically gender-based violence, continues to intensify in Papua New Guinea.

According to the World Health Organisation, two out of three PNG women have experienced violence from an intimate partner.

Where intimate partners are not the perpetrators of violence, Papua New Guinean women are vulnerable to violence particularly in their mobility within communities.

In October 2017, a woman was almost burned to death by a mob who had accused her of practising sorcery.

Rescued from mob
The woman who was later identified as “Elizabeth” from Eastern Highlands was rescued by police officers and taken to a hospital before the mob could do anything else to her.

Stories like that of Elizabeth reiterate that PNG women are more vulnerable than ever and violence is near impossible to escape.

The shows that violence permeates all levels of Papua New Guinean society and a wakeup call is needed for the government to act quickly.

Critics say the level of attention that is being devoted to the APEC leaders summit should also be applied to combatting gender-based violence.

PNG cannot reach development and prosperity until violence against women is dealt with, argued Australian journalist Jo Chandler in a 2014 analysis.

At present, the response to gender-based violence has centred on implementing a 2016 – 2025 National Gender-Based Violence strategy which was officially launched in 2017.

The strategy is intended to be a guide for the PNG government to facilitate the implementation of the legislation, policies and programmes needed to eliminate gender-based violence.

Family protection law
The government has also passed family protection legislation in 2014 to criminalise domestic violence and give more power to protection orders for survivors.

These achievements are a win for gender-based violence survivors as sectorial committees such as the Family and Sexual Violence Action Committee (FSVAC) will be more equipped to support them and their needs.

FSVAC national coordinator Marcia Kalinoe said the National Gender-Based Violence Strategy “consolidates the current work that is ongoing”.

“Fourteen years ago, there was not much sensitisation and gender mainstreaming and specialised services addressing the issue,” she said.

Kailonoe added that the various legislative changes and multisectoral response would be of great assistance to survivors for accessing support services.

Despite the PNG government’s current milestones and the support of partners such as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and donors, PNG is ranked as 140 out of 146 countries in the Gender Inequality Index.

The journey to raise more awareness on gender-based violence has not been an easy feat due to “socially and culturally constructed norms”, as outlined by the UNDP.

Constant challenges
In Durrie Bouscaren’s interview with a UNDP-trained “human rights defender” Linda Tule in June, these social and cultural constructs of unequal power relations were highlighted.

Tule talked about how she had counselled three women a week in spite of operating out of her home and on a limited budget.

She even hosts these women if a safehouse has reached its full capacity.

This is the current scenario for survivors of gender-based violence in PNG.

People like Enid Barlong Kantha, who has worked in the gender-based violence field for more than 10 years, knows the ebbs and flows first-hand.

She says that “challenges remain a constant part of the battle” despite the country’s achievements.

“Even with political will, there is still a lack of resources; human resource, financial support and infrastructure. Where there are services, a lack of capacity hinders progress and continues to frustrate many.”

She adds that the lack of coordination among stakeholders and lack of statistics deter better cooperation and collaboration in the national response to gender-based violence.

Stepping into the future
Advocates recognise that ending gender-based violence in PNG, or anywhere else in the world, cannot be done overnight.

The journey will be long and change will be incremental.

Yet, there are corrective measures that can be taken particularly by the PNG government.

For one thing, more emphasis can be placed on decentralising services to not only the outer provinces but also areas that are rural, say advocates.

This compulsive need to upgrade Port Moresby for the world’s eyes has to stop as it is failing the majority of Papua New Guineans and exacerbating unequal gender and power relations.

There is only so much advocacy and awareness that can be funnelled into eliminating gender-based violence.

Services coupled with awareness, however, can eliminate some of the social and cultural constructs at play in PNG.

As Papua New Guinean journalist Scott Waide has said, “superstition thrives where service delivery is poor”.

Pauline Mago-King is a masters student based at Auckland University of Technology and is researching gender-based violence in Papua New Guinea. She compiled this report for the Pacific Media Centre’s Asia-Pacific Journalism Studies course.

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