Editor’s Note: 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.
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.”
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.
But that’s not the worst of it. In the isolated highlands, parts of which are no-go areas due to sporadic tribal violence, some of the stories I heard border on extreme brutality. It is a region where sorcery and ancient traditions conspire to create a dangerous situation for women.
Sister Lorena Jenal, a Catholic nun and counselor in the Archdiocese of Mendi, attribute the growing trend in violence against women to the breakdown in traditional tribal authority that used to mediate disagreements peacefully. Add to that the availability of drugs and homemade alcohol for men — many women told me they are beaten when their spouses come home under the influence — and the situation appears extremely bleak.
Furthermore, in a country where more than 80% of the population lives in rural areas, widespread illiteracy and isolation means that many victims of violence are unaware or their rights and have little access to a functioning justice system. Reaching a police station or one of the few crisis centers for women can be expensive and involve impossibly long journeys.
Mark Palm, the US-born CEO and co-founder of Samaritan Aviation (and the subject of a CNN news feature), knows the lay of the land in and around Wewak almost better than anyone else. He told me that he is frequently summoned to airlift women who have been victims of domestic abuse along the Sepik River basin where his seaplanes run medical missions. Ironically, his 1,000th flight in March happened to be an emergency flight to rescue a woman who’d been badly beaten, allegedly by her husband.
“We see all kinds of domestic abuse cases. The worst is when I pick up a woman with severed arms, and those who have been cut in the head, back and legs. The look in their eyes of defeat and resignation always cuts me to the core,” he said to me.
Though there have been some laudable pieces of legislation and policies enacted on the national level — such as acts to protect families and children and a national strategy for the prevention of gender-based violence — it is hard to measure the benefit for women as enforcement and implementation tends to be lax.
In many of the countries in the developing world where I’ve worked in the aid business, countries with a high percentage of females in parliament or cabinet often translates into a trend for more child and family-friendly legislation.
That’s why there’s reason for some hope in Papua New Guinea.
Shortly before I departed, on International Women’s Day in March, former Prime Minister Peter O’Neill proposed a women’s parliamentary quota system for its 111-seat legislature. The system is similar to what I’ve seen used in patriarchal societies like Bangladesh, where 50 of the 350 parliamentary seats are reserved for women.
And earlier this month, Papua New Guinea’s Police Minister Bryan Kramer promised “sweeping changes” to how police address sexual violence and police brutality.
But that will not be enough, at least in the short-term, to assist the countless victims of violence.
First, the government needs to end impunity for perpetrators of violence. Second, major donors can play a role in funding a legal aid fund, an expansion of the network of safe houses and counseling centers for victims of abuse, since oftentimes – the Wewak shelter’s founder Sophie Mangai told me – these are the only places women can escape abusive spouses.
And, third, the legislature must repair the weak judicial and law enforcement system by filling the many empty judge’s seats, hiring more specially trained police and rehabilitating the penal system.
Doing nothing, quite simply, is not an option.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated the organization that supports the woman-only bus in Port Moresby. The bus is supported by UN Women.