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."
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.
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.