They are not alone

Papua New Guinea is one of the world’s most dangerous countries to be a woman.

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Papua New Guinea (PNG) is stunning. Known as the “Land of the Unexpected”, its endless greenery, coastal strolls and flashes of colour leave visitors in awe. Culture and family life can be strong and inspiring.

And yet, it is one of the most dangerous places on earth for women, with more than two-thirds of PNG women having experienced physical or sexual violence. Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) goes so far as to say that domestic and sexual violence is a medical humanitarian emergency in PNG, with levels of gender violence normally only experienced in war zones.

The lack of refuges and counselling services is a huge issue—one that eight young people from Avondale College of Higher Education (NSW) have decided to tackle.

“We just wanted to get the message out that this is happening and it’s not right,” explains International Poverty Development studies student Linda Ciric. “As Christians, we can help.”

Ms Ciric and her classmates, all first year students, are hoping to partner with key ministries of the Seventh-day Adventist Church to raise funds for and awareness about the issue of family violence in PNG.

“We’ve reached out to ADRA Australia, Australian Union Conference Women’s Ministries and Adventist Media, as well as individual churches, to see how they can help with fundraising and awareness,” says classmate Jessica Krause.

The students are guided by their lecturer, Dr Brad Watson, who earlier this year spent two weeks in PNG compiling a consultancy report for the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the South Pacific (SPD) on family violence.

His results were extremely confronting.

“What we’re seeing are some of the highest rates of gender violence in the world, but the Church [in Papua New Guinea] generally doesn’t have any counselling skills,” Dr Watson says. “There is also no formal refuge program for women; only a few of the mainland churches have their own women’s refuge.”

As a result, the students have set a fundraising target of $A100,000, hoping to support a safe place refuge centre where women can access counselling services. And they’re actively on the way to reaching their goal: the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) in Australia has already agreed to work with the students on this project.

“ADRA is committed to addressing gender-based violence in PNG, so we’re excited by the passion of Avondale students who are fundraising for this cause,” says ADRA Australia CEO Mark Webster.

“We will extend our work in this area by establishing basic counselling facilities and safe houses in local mission headquarters to better support women and children, and hope to work with the Family and Women’s Ministries departments to empower and inspire churches across Australia to fundraise and advocate for women in PNG so they know they are not alone.”

What began as a compulsory class assessment soon turned into a passionate project, as the students began to truly comprehend the tragic realities in PNG.

“I’ve been to PNG a couple of times, and I’ve fallen in love with the country and the people there,” says student Kim Parmenter. “Just knowing that these are the sorts of issues they face, and knowing that we’re not really doing quite enough about it, makes me want to do something more.”

Fellow student Yannick Coutet agrees, saying his turning point came from viewing Russian photojournalist Vlad Sokhin’s work “Crying Meri”.2

“Seeing pictures on Google used to be just pictures,” he explains. “But it wasn’t until I read about the issues and saw photos of how some women were being treated that it really touched me and motivated me to provide help. It’s really sad, but it’s really impacting—and that’s why we’re taking action.”

It’s scenarios like these that are all too familiar for PNG project officer for ADRA Australia, Ellen Hau Pati, who grew up in the Gulf Province but has lived in Port Moresby for the past 20 years.

“In the community, I would see almost every day a woman with a black eye, or hear a woman screaming for help,” recalls Ms Hau Pati. “It’s definitely common. I am one of the lucky ones—I personally haven’t experienced it. I came from a home where my parents never physically abused each other, and I married a man who isn’t violent, but I would say with certainty that I am a rare case.” 

"In the community, I would see almost every day a woman with a black eye, or hear a woman screaming for help."

With the facts and statistics in hand, the question that must be asked is this: How has gender-based violence in PNG reached this level?

Ms Hau Pati explains that there could be several reasons, including poverty and a weak justice system—there is no real law enforcement, especially in the villages.

But with more than 800 languages in PNG, and just as many cultural circles, she says the biggest cause is a fragmented, gradual breakdown in social culture.

“In the past, we had a social network with rules and taboos that controlled us,” she says. “But now, in modern times, people have moved to the cities and married between different villages. When people intermarry, rules and sanctions from their original communities don’t apply anymore, and men feel as though they can get away with more.

“The family culture is definitely still strong in PNG but a lot of that has broken down because of the movement and mixes within communities. If you get married within your village, there is a good chance your family can step in and help. But in the towns and cities, it’s really difficult; everyone is living away from their tribal network.”

When Ms Hau Pati finishes sharing her stories, she delivers a piece of good news.

“Slowly, people are starting to accept that it’s not just a domestic issue,” she says.

The Adventist Church in PNG is also formally recognising that gender-based violence is an issue it needs to address. Dr Watson’s SPD report found that most participants acknowledged family violence as a very important issue for church members, and were willing to work towards progress on a long-term strategy.

“I’m so grateful to the Avondale students for addressing this issue,” says Ms Hau Pati. “There’s a lot of opportunity for us as a Church to do more, and I believe this is our gospel calling.”

Dr Watson also says he’s excited about the project and is proud of the way his students are responding to such a prevalent issue.

“I think this project is something we can link with ADRA and the Church to make quite a big impact,” he says. “The Church in PNG is responding, and we can help.”

As for the name of the project, the students haven’t yet coined one, but they’ve got a phrase.

“Our slogan is, ‘They are not alone’,” says Ms Ciric. “We just want them to know that.”


NOTE: This feature is the first in a series on gender-based violence in PNG. The rest will be written by Avondale College students participating in this project, and will be released progressively on record.net.au

  1. https://www.msf.org.au/papua-new-guinea
  2. “Meri” is Tok Pisin (PNG Pidgin) for “woman”. To view Vlad Sokhin’s work, visit http://www.vladsokhin.com/work/crying-meri/ WARNING: graphic content.
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