Women have suffered in silence in Papua New Guinea

‘…what is most appalling is the PNG government’s lax attitude to the repeated abuse of women in its society. Despite women activists staging protests, demonstrations and walkouts in the country’s parliament, all the country’s leaders have done is pay lip service to the problems’

At a time when a nation is emerging at the top of the heap in the region in several economic indicators and also growing in profile as a regional conciliator of note under the elder statesman-like leadership of its most prominent leader, its own internal affairs are proving to be more than a shameful drag on its long road towards positive achievement.

Papua New Guinea is undoubtedly the Pacific Islands region’s best economic performer that has continuously registered over five percent growth over the past several years mainly on the back of the mineral and mining boom propelled by robust investment from overseas—especially Australia.

The opening up of possibilities of undersea mining in its exclusive economic zone brings to it unlimited potential for the future except that the bull run of the past few years will slow down for as long as the global financial downturn lasts. But that will be a temporary hiatus and undersea mining activity will bounce back in the next few years.

The country’s profile as a regional economic leader has been matched by the profile of its long serving Prime Minister, Sir Michael Somare, widely accepted by the region’s leadership as the elder statesman as seen from his most recent role in taking the initiative to host an extraordinary Pacific Islands Forum leaders meeting in Port Moresby to find a sensible and time bound way forward for Fiji.

But through all those impressive achievements, Papua New Guinea has not been able to shake off the image of poverty, poor achievement of development indices especially in comparison with other islands nations, a runaway crime rate that by all perceptions only seems to be getting worse by the month, widespread corruption in its government and administration, and a poor and worsening human rights record.

Every once in a while a story of unbelievable violence against defenceless women pops up on the news wire from Papua New Guinea. This year began with the shocking news of a young woman in Mt Hagen who was burnt to death by villagers on such purported charges as having extra marital affairs, engaging in sorcery and spreading the HIV/AIDS virus to one of the men. The woman, probably still in her late teens, had logs strapped to her abdomen and back, her hands tied and mouth gagged with rags before she was set alight.

Media reports of the incident sent shock waves throughout the region and beyond. The pristine and primitive features of Papua New Guinea’s culture have been a great draw card for attracting tourists, academics, international television channels and documentary makers alike. But incidents such as these expose the flip side of that culture—one that unfortunately and in a most demeaning manner seems to be alive and well.

So entrenched is the subjugation of women in Papua New Guinean society, that women down dozens of generations have simply accepted it as a fait accompli.

According to Papua New Guinea author Christina Kewa, it is common for educated women even in this day and age to turn up to work with black eyes and facial bruises shrugging it off as just another altercation with their husbands or partners. It’s as if their modern education has made no difference to their subconsciously blind acceptance of women as objects of hate.

Kewa, who was also born and raised in Mt Hagen, blames the centuries old, unchanging traditional attitudes to women for such state of affairs. “The girl child is still seen as a commodity that will one day be sold. And having purchased a woman for a bride price, her owner feels free to treat her as he deems fit,” she said recently.

“It is impossible for a woman’s family to prevent her abuse or complain about it after she is married away because she is now somebody else’s property. It is therefore no surprise that gang rapes have been increasing and so have been cases of HIV/ AIDS. It is almost like it is OK to commit rape.”

Gender equality and women’s rights are two areas that continue to suffer in many parts of the world, including the Pacific—but most glaringly in Papua New Guinea.

Generations of women have suffered in silence while their menfolk have abused them and often relegated them to the existence of speechless animals citing convenient misinterpretations of both societal and religious sanction.

Superstition, hearsay, misconception and bigotry are powerful tools men use to give women a bad name and deal with them in any manner that pleases them—more often than not with violent brutality as in the case of the Mt Hagen woman, whose case, is one of the many that has come to light.

But what is most appalling is the PNG government’s lax attitude to the repeated abuse of women in its society. Despite women activists staging protests, demonstrations and walkouts in the country’s parliament, all the country’s leaders have done is pay lip service to the problems. The country continues to be poorly represented by women, what with just a single woman MP after so many years since the country gained independence from colonial rule. That is the extent to which women find themselves out of the political mainstream: self-rule has simply failed to bring women and their issues into the focus of national discourse.

And it comes as little surprise, too, that the media reported recently—much to the chagrin of local authorities—that Port Moresby is competing for the top spot as the world’s murder capital.

The news story about the unfortunate Mt Hagen woman was picked up all over the region and beyond, But the absence of analytical pieces in the media also betrayed either the lack of interest in—or the large scale indifference to—the larger socio-cultural context behind that particular incident in particular, and the lot of long suffering womanhood in the country.

The media certainly has a far more important and larger role to play in changing society than merely cataloguing and reporting facts. It must hold up a mirror to society and show its true face, warts and all. It must stir debate in a way that would bring about a change in attitude at both the political and social levels.


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