Ruth, 29, shows me a fresh wound, slowly healing, on the top of her head, while she stays at a safe house in Port Moresby. “About 6.30am. I was getting ready for work. We had an argument ... My husband threw a rock. My head was broken. No one helped,” she says matter-of-factly. “This has been going on for six years — him beating me.”
Days later, I spoke to Katherine, 48, in the Highlands. “We quarrelled … My husband came and asked for sex. I said no because I was very tired … About 2 or 3am he got a hot stick from the fire and he put it in my vagina,” Katherine says.
In Papua New Guinea, harrowing stories like these of women attacked by their husbands are the norm, rather than the exception. Domestic violence is pervasive — but too often government officials neglect the needs of survivors for safety, services, and justice.
Ruth carried the large rock that her husband attacked her with to the nearest police station. But instead of offering to get her help, the police commander said she first required a medical report, “and then I will arrest him”. Ruth took a bus to hospital, “It was shameful to be there on the bus with my head all bloody and bleeding,” she said.
Her husband still has not been arrested.
A community activist helped Katherine to go to hospital and the police. “I reported it to the female police officer. But they said they don’t have the car to arrest him,” Katherine says. “They said they will give an IPO (protection order). But that costs money …. I spent two days waiting for the police.” Katherine is now staying with her parents in the same village as her abusive spouse.
Civil society groups, whose members include the activist who helped Katherine and the safe house sheltering Ruth, provide lifesaving assistance to domestic violence victims. But the PNG government needs to do more to address this emergency.
In 2013, PNG passed the Family Protection Act, which set new penalties for family violence and aims to make it easier for victims to get protection orders and services. Although some services have been established, the law has not been implemented on the ground.
When we interviewed police officers tasked with helping victims of family violence, they did not even know about the existence of this law.
Police routinely fail to investigate and pursue prosecution of cases of domestic violence. Protection orders are issued rarely — and often only after delays. A lot of women, frustrated with the process and financially dependent on their spouses, end up returning to abusive husbands.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop declared that “ending violence against women and girls, and enhancing women’s leadership opportunities in the Pacific, is a foreign policy priority (for the Australian government)”.
And Australian aid has supported many reforms, funding services for victims of family and sexual violence, and investing in the justice sector.
But donor funding can only do so much. Activists complain that the PNG government does not allocate adequate funds to confront family violence, even though it is a low-middle income country. The government does not fund safe houses. Units in police stations and hospitals to address domestic violence have been established with international assistance.
Australia should continue to expand its support for services and reforms to assist survivors of domestic violence. But it should also better monitor the PNG government’s progress in tackling domestic violence and publicly and privately urge Port Moresby to move quickly on reforms. Australia should issue annual public reports on human rights in PNG, including detailed analysis of the government’s progress and failings in addressing domestic violence. Domestic violence should also be an agenda item on the annual bilateral ministerial dialogue.
Some say domestic violence is a cultural phenomenon in the Pacific. It is true that PNG is not the only country grappling with high levels of domestic violence. But this is no excuse for inaction.
Ruth and Katherine were clear in demanding justice for their abuse. “I want to take him to the law and justice,” Katherine says. “I don’t want compensation. I want the law to put him to jail … this type of violence, the government is not addressing it.”
The PNG government owes it to victims like Katherine and Ruth to address this crisis.
Elaine Pearson is the Australia director at Human Rights Watch.