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Special Rapporteur on Violence against women finalises country mission to Papua New Guinea

PORT MORESBY (26 March 2012) – At the end of her official country mission to Papua New Guinea, the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, Ms. Rashida Manjoo, delivered the following statement:

“I would like to begin by expressing my appreciation to the Government of Papua New Guinea for extending the invitation to conduct an official country mission. I am grateful to all my interlocutors, including National and Provincial authorities, the Autonomous Bougainville Government, representatives of civil society organisations, as well as representatives of the United Nations agencies and the donor community. Most importantly, I want to thank the individual women who courageously shared their personal experiences of violence and survival with me.

The recognition by the Government of the need to uphold its international human rights obligations is reflected in its positive participation in the UPR process, it’s reporting to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, including by the establishment of a CEDAW implementation strategy, and the efforts to establish a National Human Rights Commission. I am also encouraged by the development of a human rights track in the National Court which allows for specialization in human rights cases, as well as the establishment of a multi-sectoral Human Rights Forum.

Efforts to improve the status and conditions of women are also reflected in initiatives to strengthen the country’s gender machinery, including the development of the 2011-2015 National Policy for Women and Gender Equality and the Integrated Community Development Strategy. As regards the political participation of women, I welcome the constitutional amendment which allows for the creation of 22 seats in Parliament for women. It is my hope that any ambiguity between the constitutional amendment and its enabling organic law is resolved before the 2012 elections. Furthermore, it is crucial that relevant legislative measures such as the enactment of the Law on Family Violence and the repeal of the Sorcery Act are speedily undertaken.

Papua New Guinea is a culturally rich and diverse country, in which the respect for tradition plays an important role in the daily lives of its population. However, some of the traditional practices that are currently followed are harmful to women, and in fact exacerbate deep-rooted patriarchal attitudes and stereotypes with regard to women’s status and their roles and responsibilities in the public and private spheres.

Violence against women is a pervasive phenomenon in Papua New Guinea, with a wide range of manifestations occurring in the home, in the community and in institutional settings. There is currently no official data which captures the different manifestations or prevalence rates of violence against women in the country. However my interactions with interviewees, both at the governmental and non-governmental sector, as well as the information received directly from survivors; indicate extremely high levels of violence against women throughout the country, with some regional variations in manifestations and prevalence.

Violence against women in Papua New Guinea begins in the home, with women and girl children being subjected to physical and sexual violence, mostly by male family members. With regard to intimate partner violence, according to a 1992 report produced by the Constitutional Law Reform Commission (CLRC), “two thirds of married women in PNG had been hit by their husbands”. An academic study conducted in 2009 shared similar findings, noting that 65.3% of the interviewed women were survivors of domestic violence.

According to most interviewees, domestic violence is socially perceived as a normal aspect of a woman’s life and a family matter that should not be discussed publicly. Therefore, the first obstacle faced by women victims is the inability, and consequently the reticence, to disclose or report the suffering they are encountering at home. This reluctance is exacerbated by a general lack of support from the family and the community. The practice of bride-price was identified by many stakeholders as an important trigger of domestic violence, as men commonly feel entitled to control and even abuse their wives as a result of having paid the bride price, thus regarding women as their property. Likewise, families who received such payment are reluctant to provide support or receive abused women back in the family home, as this will entail paying compensation or returning the bride-price received for the marriage.

Polygamy was also identified as a common cause of violence in the family. Many interviewed victims explained how husbands had become abusive or had increased their abusive behaviour after deciding to start a relationship with another woman. The abuse usually starts with neglect and lack of resource provision for the first wife and her children, but can escalate to physical and sexual violence, and in some cases murder. The practice of polygamy also creates tension between women within the same family and has led to cases of violence, sometimes resulting in murder of the husband or the additional wife/girlfriend. In fact, a large number of the women I interviewed in the Bomana prison were serving lengthy sentences after being convicted for the murder of their husband or the additional wife/girlfriend.

With regard to sexual violence within the family, service providers confirmed that the number of cases of incest and teenage pregnancies is on the rise. Young girls, particularly those living with relatives or step-parents, are reportedly at high risk of sexual violence, which is perpetrated by male relatives such as uncles, cousins, brothers or male family friends. Although marital rape is penalized by the Criminal Code, only two cases have been prosecuted since the relevant legislation was enacted in 2003.

As regards violence against women in the community, I received alarming reports of violence perpetrated against persons accused of sorcery/witchcraft, with women being affected disproportionally, particularly widows or other women with no family to protect them.

During my visit to the Highlands region, I was shocked to witness the brutality of the assaults perpetrated against suspected sorcerers, which in many cases include torture, rape, mutilations and murder. According to many interviewees, sorcery accusations are commonly used to deprive women of their land and/or their property. Also any misfortune or death within the community can be used as an excuse to accuse such person of being a sorcerer. I was informed that sorcery related violence is commonly perpetrated by young men or boys who act under the orders of other members of the community, and they commonly do so under the influence of drugs or alcohol, which is provided by such persons. Factors at the community level which allow for impunity for perpetrators include: the unwillingness to intervene prior to, or during, such attacks; fear of reporting and/or providing information to the police; and the use of the one-talk (wantok) solidarity tradition.

The abuse of alcohol and other substances is also present in many of the reported cases of sexual violence in the community. Women interviewed in Port Moresby shared their fears of gang rape and other forms of violent crime in the streets, which has limited their ability to move freely and safely without a companion. The risk of sexual assault and rape was also a particular source of concern among interviewed women who are living in regions facing tribal conflicts.

The prevalence of sexual violence is particularly worrying given that Papua New Guinea is currently facing high rates of HIV-Aids, with 1.5 per cent of its 6.5 million people being infected and women and girls being disproportionately affected, accounting for 60 per cent of the people living with HIV in the country.

During my mission I also examined the situation of women in detention, both remand and convicted prisoners. I was informed that 90% of women in prisons in the country are serving time for murder. In the Bomana prison, I interviewed women charged with murder and other crimes. From the information received, all the women convicted for murder were victims of family violence, including being subjected to polygamy and neglect, and, many of them had acted in self-defence. In most cases, women had endured years of physical and sexual abuse from their husbands and had received no support when reaching out to the community or the police. Most incarcerated women did not have adequate legal representation and they accepted the option of a plea for a lesser charge rather than go to trial. Nevertheless, all the women had ended up receiving lengthy sentences, despite their expectation that a plea to a lesser charge would result in a lower sentence. Many of the interviewed women were of the view that judges were unresponsive to evidence that reflected acts committed in self-defence, history of abuse and acts committed in a rage when catching their husbands being unfaithful to them. This was reflected in comments by some judges who stated that they had taken a life and they needed to pay the price.
 
As regards the conditions in prisons, women do not receive adequate and suitable food; they do not have regular access to health services, and, need to wait long periods to see a medical professional; they are reliant on family and friends for appropriate medication; and they are forced to work without receiving any remuneration for their products or their labour. For women in prison who have their children living with them, there is only a one-bed cell which sometimes has to cater for 7 women and 9 children. Furthermore, the prison does not provide food or other necessities for babies and children, and this remains the responsibility of the mother.

Reports of police brutality and misconduct were widely reported in all parts of the country. Complaints of violence and sexual abuse of women while in police detention and outside was a systemic issue, including against sex workers. In a provincial police station, I witnessed the incarceration of minor and adult women together and found women and girls who had been kept in custody for up to three months in extremely inadequate conditions, while awaiting trial. Some of them had not had access to a lawyer.

Regardless of the specific manifestations of violence suffered, most interviewed victims felt that the policing sector had not provided them with an adequate response to their cases. I heard numerous accounts of police officers ignoring complaints, dismissing women from the police stations, encouraging women to drop charges, not enforcing Interim Protection Orders, or receiving bribes from perpetrators to ignore a case. In some instances, it was the lack of resources, including a vehicle or enough fuel; but more often a lack of commitment that affected police officers ability to investigate cases of violence against women. Even when willing to investigate, the lack of specialization in investigative and forensic skills increases the dependence of police officers on witness testimonies to identify perpetrators and consequently to initiate proceedings, which has its own challenges as there is no victim and witness protection scheme.

Although Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary (RPNGC) Family and Sexual Violence Units have been set up in six police stations in the country, these are yet to be formalized and permanently integrated into the structure and budget of the police, including with adequate human and financial resources. Currently these units have very little resources and, as awareness and usage of these specialized units’ increases, there is a growing need for additional staff and resources to be allocated to them. In some provinces, Women and Children’s desks have been set up through the Community Policing Division under the Department of Policing. However, their operation is reportedly also limited by resource constraints, the lack of institutional support, and the lack of specialised skills. It is unclear what the relationship is between such units and the RPNGC Family and Sexual Violence Units. Several stakeholders reported that most of the policing resources are currently being diverted to the regions hosting Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) projects as well as the mining areas, to the detriment of safety and security needs of PNG citizens.   
 
As regards successful prosecutions of cases of violence against women, the Office of the Public Prosecutor also faces staffing and resource constraints, including a lack of offices and adequate staffing in the provinces. I was encouraged to hear that earlier this year the OPP has established a Family and Sexual Offence Unit in Port Moresby, and has appointed a Victim Liaison Officer responsible for assisting women victims of violence who use the criminal justice system.

The health department has established Family Support Centres in some hospitals which provide both counselling and short-term shelter services. Such centres face the same challenges as do other specialized services, as regards resources and capacity. Despite an executive order relating to the charging of “fighting fees”, the practice of charging a fee continues, and is especially onerous for women victims of violence. In addition, the charging of a fee for a medical certificate is a further barrier to reporting violence, as a case cannot be opened at the police station without such a certificate.

The lack of access to justice for women and girls is reflected in the lack of substantive and consistent service by all components of the criminal justice system. Unfortunately, despite the abovementioned efforts at specialization, which exist mainly in the capital city, cases of violence against women are rarely reaching the District and National Courts. Such cases are mainly being resolved through mediation processes and compensation payments at the Village Court level. This is the also the case for offences such as grievous bodily harm, rape, or incest, crimes which are not within the jurisdiction of the Village Court.

During my mission, it was clear to me that the support and other relevant services that do exist for victims of all forms of violence, are being provided largely by the civil society sector, with the assistance of development partners. This assistance includes both financial and capacity building initiatives. As regards the provision of free legal services, the availability and quality of services received from the Public Solicitors Office was criticised by numerous interlocutors.

The responsibility to prevent violence, protect against violence, provide remedies for victims, and to punish perpetrators for all acts of violence against women, is primarily an obligation of the State. I would like to emphasize the need for holistic solutions which address both the individual needs of women, and also the social, economic and cultural barriers that are a reality in the lives of women. The empowerment of women must be coupled with social transformation, to fully address the systemic and structural causes of inequality and discrimination, which most often lead to violence against women.

In conclusion, it is my hope that relevant and much needed laws are passed soon, existing laws are adequately enforced ; that existing specialized units are strengthened and replicated at the provincial and district levels; that women are encouraged and supported by the state sector in bringing their cases to the District and National Courts; and that accountability, rather than impunity, becomes the norm for all acts of violence against women.

My findings will be discussed in a comprehensive way in the report I will present to the United Nations Human Rights Council in June 2013.”

ENDS

Ms. Rashida Manjoo (South Africa) was appointed Special Rapporteur on Violence against women, its causes and consequences in June 2009 by the UN Human Rights Council, for an initial period of three year. As Special Rapporteur, she is independent from any government or organization and serves in her individual capacity. Ms. Manjoo is also a Professor in the Department of Public Law at the University of Cape Town.

For additional information on the mandate of the Special Rapporteur, please visit: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Women/SRWomen/Pages/SRWomenIndex.aspx

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Ganster-Breidler, Margit. Gender-based violence and the impact on women’s health and well-being in Papua New Guinea. Divine Word University, 2009.