Papua New Guinea has made the international news again with a horrific story to reinforce stereotypes about the country: sorcery, sex, and fire. On January 6, a group of men reportedly stripped a woman naked, bound her hands and feet, stuffed a cloth in her mouth, and burned her alive on a dumpsite. Rumor has it that she had "confessed" to having eaten a man's heart.
But in all likelihood, this will turn out to be a more typical story from that country: a brutal killing of a woman that goes unprosecuted, unpunished, and forgotten.
In Papua New Guinea, research indicates, two-thirds of women experience domestic violence, and 50 percent of women have experienced forced sex. The Australian development agency AUSAID just issued a new report identifying violence against women as a major barrier to Papua New Guinea's development.
Papua New Guinea officials are going to have to take the lead to solve the problem, but with a new administration in Washington that is expected to take a stronger stand on women's issues, this may be a good time to bring international pressures to bear on countries where unpunished violence against women is routine.
The truth in the latest case may be more like what happened almost exactly one year before. Only a few yards away from a police station, a mob stripped a woman naked, beat and poked her with hot iron rods, and set on her on fire. The accusation: that she was possessed by spirits that she used to chop off a man's tongue. The story that came out later: the man went to her house, tried to rape her, and in the struggle she bit off part of his tongue. The next day he accused her of witchcraft.
Provincial police commanders in two highlands provinces told journalists that there were more than 50 sorcery-related killings in their provinces in 2008, but the perpetrators of such killings are rarely brought to justice. The problem is also complicated. Many people believe in sorcery and practicing it is a crime that can be brought to village courts.
The phenomenon has links to the country's HIV epidemic -- 1.5 percent of the country's 6.5 million people are infected. Many villagers -- particularly those in remote communities where the virus has reached but information, testing, and treatment have not -- may suspect sorcery when someone dies from the disease.
But allegations of sorcery are far too often used to hide ordinary murders. Blaming the victim just makes it a little easier for the police to take no action. Even if charges are brought and someone is convicted, claims that the victim practiced sorcery can be used to mitigate a murder sentence, officials from the Law Reform Commission have said.
Some of the most disturbing cases I've documented involved police: police rapes of a 7 year-old girl in 2005 and a 6 year-old in 2006 attracted public outrage but no conviction. Women and girls I interviewed said the police had asked them for sex when they tried to report a crime. A woman who told me the police raped her in a police station in 2005 said, ""When I see any cop car, I walk off. I'm scared. I don't trust any cop nowadays." Police have also raped women and girls when they are locked in police cells.
There are some people who are trying to do something about the situation, but they need more support. Dame Carol Kidu, a member of Parliament, presented petition to the Parliament on violence against women signed by more than 4,000 people. The Catholic Church in one province reportedly warned Catholics that they would be excommunicated if they attacked people accused of practicing sorcery. Promisingly, the nation's police commissioner has started publicly condemning violence against women and promising to do what he can to address domestic and sexual violence.
But much more work needs to be done to translate outrage and public condemnation into actual protection for women. The prime minister has made a few statements condemning the violence but has taken little action to address the problem. Women's rights groups rallied without success around the 2005 disappearance of a noted women's rights activist, Anna Benny, who was allegedly shot and killed after she went to the assistance of her sister-in-law, who was being held in a home on suspicion of practicing sorcery. The police in Goroka refused to investigate her death, claiming they had received no complaint from the family.
It is time to unmask the sensationalism from these horrific cases and to treat these cases for what they are: murders that demand thorough police investigation and prosecution. Public information campaigns, including dispelling myths about HIV, can help. Victims of violence need medical, legal, counseling, and other support services, including police protection and shelters when they are threatened at home. Australia, which gives considerable aid to the police in Papua New Guinea, should press its government harder to strengthen internal police discipline and to punish officers who turn a blind eye to violence against women, including violence committed with the flimsy excuse of defense against sorcery.
And the world needs to keep watching. In this month's sorcery case, the police promised to investigate and the Law Commission promised new legislation on sorcery. But if it's like every other case, tomorrow this may all be forgotten.
Zama Coursen-Neff is Deputy Director for the Children's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch.