During the Universal Periodic Review for Papua New Guinea (PNG) at the Human Rights Council in Geneva last year, several nations noted the high level of violence in the country and called for a mission by the Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women. The UN Special Rapporteur, Ms Rashida Manjoo, visited Papua New Guinea in March this year. She noted efforts made in the country such as the establishment of a CEDAW implementation strategy, efforts to establish a National Human Rights Commission, and the development of a National Policy for Women and Gender Equality. However, she also noted that violence against women is a pervasive phenomenon in Papua New Guinea, with a wide range of manifestations occurring in the home, in the community and in institutional settings.
Violence against women in Papua New Guinea begins in the home. With regard to intimate partner violence, according to a 1992 report produced by the Constitutional Law Reform Commission (CLRC), “two thirds of married women in PNG had been hit by their husbands”. An academic study conducted in 2009 shared similar findings, noting that 65.3% of the interviewed women were survivors of domestic violence.
Young girls, particularly those living with relatives or step-parents, are reportedly at high risk of sexual violence, which is perpetrated by male relatives such as uncles, cousins, brothers or male family friends. Although marital rape is penalized by the Criminal Code, only two cases have been prosecuted since the relevant legislation was enacted in 2003.
During her visit to the Highlands region, the Ms Manjoo was shocked to witness the brutality of the assaults perpetrated against suspected sorcerers – usually older women, which in many cases include torture, rape, mutilations and murder. Sorcery related violence is commonly perpetrated by young men or boys who often act under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
The Special Rapporteur also examined the situation of women in detention. In prisons in the country 90% of women are serving time for murder. All the women convicted for murder that she interviewed were victims of family violence, including being subjected to polygamy and neglect, and, many of them had acted in self-defence. For women in prison who have their children living with them, the prison does not provide food or other necessities for babies and children, and this remains the responsibility of the mother. In a provincial police station, she found women and girls who had been kept in custody for up to three months in extremely inadequate conditions, while awaiting trial. Some of them had not had access to a lawyer.
I attended a public forum with the Special Rapporteur in the capital Port Moresby. The meeting started with her giving a short address noting that empowerment of women must be coupled with social transformation, to fully address the systemic and structural causes of inequality and discrimination, which most often lead to violence against women. After her introduction she then listened to the opinions of those present who wanted to make a statement. I spoke about how violence against women is one aspect of the wider issue of violence for both men and women in PNG and how there are some men who would like to be involved in advocacy against such violence but do not know how to begin. The support and other relevant services that do exist for victims of all forms of violence, are being provided largely by the civil society, which includes the Churches. However, I am under the impression that the Church needs to work not only in pastoral care, but also more closely with those in policy and planning. The findings of the Special Rapporteur will be discussed in a comprehensive way at the UN Human Rights Council in June 2013.
By Philip Gibbs,SVD