A tough place to be a woman

Three women, who say they were beaten by their husbands, are photographed at a women's center in Wewek East Sipek, Papua New Guinea, on March 4, 2019.

Michael Bociurkiw is a global affairs analyst and a former spokesman for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his; view more opinions on CNN.

(CNN)You don't have to spend a long time on the fringes of Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea, to realize that many of the roads lead to a place where luck seems to have run out. In an urban slum called Eight Mile, women are relegated to decrepit shacks, caring for their children, who are fighting off a range of illnesses from malaria and dengue fever to skin rashes.

Last month, former Finance Minister James Marape was sworn in as the new prime minister on the promise of transforming the country into "the richest, black, Christian nation on the planet."
Michael Bociurkiw
But chances are that it will take some time before the women and children of Eight Mile and across much of this South Pacific nation of 8 million see any tangible improvements in their livelihoods. Despite advances achieved elsewhere in the empowerment of women and the reduction of gender-based violence, as Human Rights Watch put it in a 2016 report, "Papua New Guinea is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a woman, with the majority of women experiencing rape or assault in their lifetime and women facing systemic discrimination."
Even though legislation preventing violence against women and children has been on the books since 2013, many women can only find protection from abusive spouses and other perpetrators in a handful of underfunded shelters. Under Marape, the aspiring "richest" and "Christian" nation needs to take immediate action to guarantee the protection of its female citizens.
    But he can't do it alone. World leaders — including my own self-avowed feminist prime minister, Justin Trudeau — who gathered there last November for the 26th APEC Economic Leaders Meeting, squandered an opportunity to shine light on the shameful situation. Instead, the group of mostly male leaders squabbled over the parameters of a digital future, with scarcely a word mentioned in the final statement about women. I wonder if the leaders even noticed that there's not a single woman in Papua New Guinea's parliament, and that it has just a few female mayors.
    Women ride on a woman-only bus to work that is supported by UN Women as part of a program to reduce violence against women in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, on February 26, 2019.
    Had the APEC leaders traveled beyond Port Moresby, they very likely would have detected a seething undercurrent of violence against women. In the highlands — parts of which are still recovering from an earthquake in February 2018 and are inaccessible to outsiders — hundreds of women and children have been caught up in the chronic tribal conflict that has gripped the regions for decades. Even within the walls of their own homes, where they are meant to be safest, women routinely face partner violence. According to Human Rights Watch, more than two-thirds of women in the country have experienced gender-based violence.
    During a recent month-long, fact-finding visit to the country, partially supported by UNICEF, I was shaken to the core as what's been portrayed in countless reports and studies was recounted to me in tearful interviews with a wide range of female victims. Many are too horrific or graphic to repeat but have a common thread: the violence was perpetrated by their husbands, involves barbaric acts and are done repeatedly. Fearful of ending up on the street — or, even worse, dead — many only leave when the physical pain and mental anguish is too much to endure.
    At a women's shelter in the coastal town of Wewak, I heard from three married women in their early twenties who alleged that they were severely beaten by their husbands, including one who said she had her left arm almost hacked off when her husband chased her with a knife.