Pacific women face among highest rates of violence
By Kara Segedin
Women in the Pacific face some of the highest rates of physical and sexual violence in the world, but regional organisations are working hard to improve the situation.
Pacific researcher Apolosi Bose was in Auckland for the release of the Amnesty International Fiji Report last month.
Also high on his agenda was highlighting the serious violence against women in the Pacific.
Bose and his team have just completed an HIV and human rights report on Papua New Guinea due to be released in February.
Bose says the preliminary findings are interesting and they have identified a number of case studies to use for advocacy work.
“Violence is the rule rather than the exception,” he says.
“This case is an example of how desperate things are in Papua New Guinea.”
Visiting the country in December, Bose met with a number of NGO workers. One was a cosmetic surgeon who told him about a woman she had just met.
The woman’s face was covered in terrible scars and she offered to operate for free, but first the surgeon asked how she got the scars.
“She said, ‘Doctor, a year ago did you hear about the woman who was being rushed to hospital to give birth in an ambulance and it hijacked by the ‘rascals’ – the criminal gangs in Port Moresby? I was in that ambulance’.”
The woman was then gang raped by the men and her face was cut with a knife.
“And the sad thing is this thing is so endemic that very little is being done about it.”
A couple of years ago a police commissioner from Fiji was visiting Port Moresby.
“In all of the police stations he noticed a memo from the police commissioner telling all police officers to refrain from raping or sexually violating victims of crimes, detainees or complainants,” says Bose.
Apolosi Bose ... changing the culture of violence against women in Papua New Guinea. Photo: PMC/Del Abcede
Changing the culture of violence against women in Papua New Guinea is one of Bose’s main goals.
He is planning to visit early next year to follow up on a 2006 study calling for more safe houses in the country.
“When I was there in December we visited a couple of safe houses and we could see how desperate the need is for more.”
Currently, four to five women are crammed into each small room and often their children are in tow.
The issue of violence against women is far reaching in the region.
A survey Bose and his team completed in 2008 is due for release and the initial findings show high levels of violence in the Solomon Islands and Kiribati.
Around 75 percent of women in these countries experience violence at the hands of their partners or family members.
Once the full report is released, Bose says the international community needs to put pressure on the Solomon Islands and the Kiribati governments to act on the findings.
“There’s a big fear in the Pacific that all these surveys will come out and the governments will reject the outcome like what happened in Samoa a few years ago.”
A similar survey was completed by the Secretariat of the Pacific Community and when the results came out showing 46 percent of women in Samoa were the victims of violence the government rejected the survey.
“There’s a real fear among women’s groups and NGOs that the same thing will happen,” says Bose.
“This is something we will be discussing. How do we respond to this thing to show we are going to want something done by the government to try and address these problems?”
Patrick Holmes, chief executive of Amnesty International NZ, says violence against women is one of the gravest human rights violations in the Pacific region.
“It has a devastating impact on development in a number of Pacific nations, affecting not only the health and welfare of the women experiencing violence, but also families, communities and country.”
Amnesty is running a worldwide campaign ‘Stop Violence Against Women’ which aims to guarantee access to justice and services for women subjected to physical and sexual violence; create new laws to protect women’s human rights and end those that discriminate against women.
Holmes is calling on the Pacific Islands Forum to put violence against women on the agenda.
“A milestone for Pacific women’s rights was reached at this year’s forum when violence against women was a discussed for the first time ever.”
Holmes would like to see the New Zealand media give more attention to the issue.
“While domestic violence within New Zealand is quite widely reported on, there tends to be a lack of in-depth coverage and analysis of violence against women in Pacific countries.
“The Pacific region is in our ‘front yard’ – we have strong geographical and cultural links to Pacific nations, and so New Zealand media coverage of Pacific issues should reflect these links”
The United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) covers 15 countries in the region.
Lorena Portillo, Pacific regional manager, says for 2008-2012 the organisation is focusing on four countries – Papua New Guinea, Kiribati, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.
“The levels of violence may vary from country to country, but in general, all 15 Pacific countries report alarming figures on violence against women.”
For example, in Papua New Guinea, where two out of three Pacific Islanders live, recent studies show on average 50 percent of women have experienced forced sex and two out of three women have experienced domestic violence; although in some areas the figures are close to 100 percent.
UNIFEM has established a project to fund NGOs and government departments working to end violence against women. The project will eventually cover 15 countries, but is currently being rolled out in a few countries where funds are available.
The project started in Fiji in March and will expand to Papua New Guinea by the end of the year.
Apolosi Bose says New Zealand has been assisting several countries in the Pacific already, but not Papua New Guinea. “The Australians are – that’s their backyard.”
New Zealand is running the Pacific Prevention of Domestic Violence Programme in the Cook Islands, Kiribati, Samoa and Tonga.
The programme was set up to help address domestic violence in the region by mentoring police officers.
“There is still a lot of gender stereotyping in these countries.
“I mentioned the notice in PNG to police officers not to rape – you’d think as police officers they’d know what is right and what is wrong.”
The programme is about police officers educating other police officers in the region.
“It can be difficult for them to take it from a non-sworn civilian – they’d rather take it from a man in uniform.”
Bose would like to see New Zealand extend the programme to Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.
The programme is fully funded by New Zealand – however, the funding is due to stop at the end of the year.
“We need to put pressure on the government to give more funding to help. There’s a lot more to do in terms of raising awareness – telling people it’s wrong.”
Bose spent eight years in the Pacific teaching people about gender human rights. He says it is a difficult process and you cannot expect to change people’s thinking overnight.
He says some men have the view: “I’ve paid a price for her so I can do anything I want with her.
Kara Segedin is a Graduate Diploma in Journalism student at AUT University now working on the New Zealand Herald.