Building safer communities for women and girls in Papua New Guinea

September 12, 2014

Women's Human Rights Defenders in PNG
Women’s Human Rights Defenders, Jiwaka, PNG, July 2014. Photo: Joanna Hayter

The definition of peace and security is different for people all over the world. Capturing people’s views about what it means to feel safe is no easy task, yet IWDA partner Voice for Change in Papua New Guinea managed to do just that. Since September 2013, over a thousand people from 12 communities in Jiwaka Province have participated in their community survey on violence against women and girls.

For the last 10 years, Voice for Change has been working to create safer livelihoods for women and girls. Educating communities about human rights and Papua New Guinean law is central to their vision. But the challenges for IWDA’s partner are considerable. In the Highlands of Papua New Guinea, family and sexual violence is prevalent, and is strongly connected with tribal conflicts, sorcery and cultural practices such as polygamy, bride price and payback.

As part of Voice for Change’s community survey, men and women were shown drawings illustrating 30 very distinct violent behaviours. The results were compelling. While wife beating was seen as the most common form of violence to women and girls, both men and women had very different opinions on which form of violence was the most serious.

Violence that men perpetuate outside the home was identified as being most serious by men. While women felt that violence which affects their immediate lives, such as the daily burden of work, which they likened to slavery, financial exploitation and polygamy, were far more serious.

When men take more than one wife, the first wife and their children are open to serious neglect. At a time when their own safety and security should be a priority, women are pressured to relinquish their own money and assets to finance their husband’s polygamy. Options for these women are limited. Often facing rejection from their own families, many women can only choose to remain in their husband’s village with their children, despite being treated badly by their husband’s family.

Situations in which some women are favoured and others abandoned and abused often leads to violence against women by women, and in this case, other wives. Competition among children can also lead to jealousy and fighting among family members.

But attitudes towards polygamy are changing. The community survey revealed that elderly and mature men in polygamous relationships were concerned about payback from their male children for not taking care of them when they were younger.

A survey participant elaborated on the changing attitude towards polygamy, “Polygamous marriages in the past were practiced by great leaders who had resources [and] mostly because the first wife couldn’t handle the workload and children. She would agree to a new wife to come and help. Not today. Every man wants to have more than one wife and there is no purpose to marrying.”

Polygamous marriages are traditionally practiced in specific areas of Papua New Guinea, including the Highlands. A process is underway to amend the Civil Registration Act to ban this customary practice.

Lilly BeSoer, Voice for Change Coordinator says that, “Laws already exist which allow the wife to contest [the marriage] within six months of a husband taking another woman. The issue is that women, particularly rural women, don’t know about the laws or how to access justice.”

This community survey shows absolutely how violence, in all its distinct and varied forms, cannot be addressed with one solution.

Voice for Change will be using the research to advocate to local government officials in Jiwaka to help advance by-laws to prevent and respond to violence against women and girls.

This article is based on research conducted by Voice for Change, ‘Violence against women and girls in Jiwaka Province: An analysis of the Voice for Change Community Survey’ funded by the United Nations Trust Fund to End Violence Against Women. IWDA GenderWise Associate, Elizabeth Reid, Visiting Fellow, State Society and Governance in Melanesia Program, Australian National University, worked with Voice for Change to analyse the data.