Papua New Guinea (PNG) is a dangerous place for women, or 'meri' as they are called in Tok Pisin, the local language. Violence against women is seen as normal. According to recent statistics from the Papua New Guinea National Department of Health, more than two thirds of women experienced physical or sexual violence. One third were subjected to rape and 17% of sexual abuse involved girls between the ages of 13 and 14. Medecins sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), a leading medical charity, claims that the levels of gender violence seen in Papua New Guinea usually only occur in war zones. One of the main threats are the Raskol gangs that rule the slums around bigger towns and Port Moresby, the capital. Most of the crimes committed on an average day are against the women of the slums around Port Moresby.
Peter Moses, one of the leaders of the 'Dirty Dons 585' gang, explains that raping women is a 'must' for the young members of the gang. In some New Guinean tribes when a boy wants to become a man, he has to go to an enemy village and kill a pig. In industrialised Port Moresby, women have replaced pigs. 'First, a young gang member should steal something… After that he must prove that his intentions are serious and he must rape a woman to complete his initiation. And it is better if a boy kills her afterwards, there will be less problems with the police,' says Moses, 32, who claims to have raped more than 30 women himself.
A large percentage of men in PNG don't have any respect for 'meri' and feel entitled to beat them, often using bush knives and axes. Many believe that once they have paid a bride price to the woman's family they own her outright and can treat her like an object. Many cases of domestic violence are linked to alcohol and jealousy also plays a role since men in Papua New Guinea often have more than one wife. Rejected and beaten women are often kicked out of their homes where they become easy targets for the Raskol gangs.
Violence against women is rarely brought to court. Most assailants are kept in a cell at the police station for a couple of days and then released. The police claim the low rate of convictions is because victims are afraid to make a statement and that many wives take pity on their husbands and ask for their release.
Perpetrators often escape their punishment because of financial reasons. To file an assault report with the police, an abused woman must first obtain a medical statement which cost money. In order to be taken to a police station, victims are expected to subsidise the police car's fuel since the police service is underfunded. Fuel in PNG is expensive and women in rural areas can't afford to pay for the journeys to the closest police station.
The situation in Papua New Guinea is slowly changing. In 2013 the PNG Parliament repealed the country's controversial Sorcery Act that provided protection for the perpetrators of 'sorcery-related' violence. The Prime Minister, Peter O'Neill, has publicly apologised to PNG's women for the high rates of domestic and sexual violence in the country.
On 18 September 2013, the Family Protection Bill was passed which criminalises domestic violence for the first time.
At the same time the government has reinstated the death penalty for crimes including sorcery-related murder and rape. Human rights organisations however believe that it is a step backward. 'Our work could become even more dangerous after the death penalty was brought back,' says Monica Paulus, who has worked with victims of sorcery-related violence in the Highlands Region of PNG. 'Now the perpetrators will fear that they might be sentenced to death and will do everything to eliminate all the witnesses to their crimes.'
It is still too early to say whether the new laws will actually protect PNG's women. In a country where tribal rules and customs still hold sway in many remote communities, it will likely take years to stop the injustice. Increasingly, though, people are becoming more aware and local papers and social media are reporting the violence against women and girls daily. Still, Papua New Guinea remains one of the most dangerous places on Earth to be a woman.