How is the Family Protection Act doing four years on?

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On the eve of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women (IDEVAW) on 25 November 2017, we explore what it is like for victims of domestic violence in Papua New Guinea and if the Family Protection Act is working. The IDEVAW begins the UN 16 Days of Activism which ends on 10 December 2017, Human Rights Day.

Today, Jacinta (not her real name) is separated from her husband of 12 years, has scars on her body, the imprint of punches around her eyes and psychological trauma that still haunts her at night.

Five years ago in 2012, she was driven down to Napa Napa some kilometres outside of Port Moresby by her husband, and beaten almost to death. He broke the femur and tubular bones in one leg with a wheel spanner, broke her skull open, punched her in the face until both her eyes were completely closed shut, and drove her almost to unconsciousness. He kept on telling her that he was going to kill her and dump her body among the nearby mangroves.

But because she kept on reminding him of their four children and begging him not to do it for their sake, he drove her to the Port Moresby General Hospital instead. However, too cowardly to own up, he reported her case as a result of a motor vehicle accident.

With her children, Jacinta eventually escaped from her husband to her parents and tried pursuing the matter in court. But, to this day, nothing has come about from that case. Long delays at the police prosecution level have led to the matter going unattended. Jacinta’s husband is also a policeman.

Jacinta’s story is only a pin drop in an ocean of domestic violence (DV) epidemic that has plagued PNG for as long as anyone can remember. It is a scourge that has crossed generational divides, ethnic boundaries and work classifications.

According to the PNG Law Reform Commission (Final Report on Domestic Violence, Report 14 of 1992), more than two-thirds of Papua New Guinean women have suffered violence at the hands of their husbands or partners. Together with other human rights violations such as sexual violence (rape, child sexual abuse), assault, and sorcery-related killings Papua New Guinean women have been ranked among the most abused women in the world outside of a conflict zone, says Doctors Without Borders.

“The women of PNG endure some of the most extreme levels of violence in the world,” adds a 2014 analysis by Australia’s Lowy Institute for International Policy. The report covered all forms of violence against women in PNG from DV to family sexual violence (FSV) to sorcery-related killings.

“They continue to be attacked with impunity despite their government’s promises of justice. The situation has been described as a humanitarian disaster yet still does not receive the broader public attention it deserves, inside or outside PNG. It is also a significant obstacle to PNG’s development and prosperity.”

In the Nation’s Capital, where DV is just as prevalent as in other parts of the country, work into addressing this serious problem is being hindered by an unresponsive police machinery and a general culture of impunity.

Last month’s revelations by the NCD Family Sexual Violence Action Committee (FSVAC) Secretariat that only two convictions have come about from the 414 cases handled between 2016-2017 point to a very disturbing reality for victims of Domestic Violence in NCD in particular and PNG in general.

Ruth Kendino, Case Coordinator at the NCD FSVAC Secretariat, says there needs to be a total change in perspective for law enforcement in gender-based violence (GBV) as the secretariat’s work has revealed that most GBV cases are not getting prosecuted because police are not putting any urgency into the matter, treating DV/GBV as “accepted behaviour”.

This ‘accepted behaviour’ culture is not just in the National Capital District, but is being experienced throughout the country; one which has led to the lack of the enforcement of the Family Protection Act (FPA), enacted in 2013 criminalising DV – four years ago.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has published a report out of its Sydney office on this problem, highlighting this as one of the biggest hindrances to the enforcement of the FPA.

Heather Barr, senior researcher on women’s rights at HRW says: “We heard the most harrowing stories from woman after woman. Women showed us their scars – from being hacked with knives, having bones reconstructed, having teeth punched out – and then described how they had to go back to the husbands who attacked them, because they had no other option.”

HRW says its research had shown that “police and prosecutors rarely pursue criminal charges against perpetrators, even in the most serious cases” and “when police do get involved, they often seek to resolve the situation not by bringing charges, but instead by ‘counselling’ the attacker to stop violent abuse, and send the woman home – even in cases of attempted murder and repeated rape, and even when the victim does not feel safe returning, does not want to reconcile, and asks for the attacker to be imprisoned.”

This issue of lack of support from police and prosecutors stems from Papua New Guinean men’s view on DV in general and the perpetrators view on DV in particular.

Says Ms Mary Jerry, board member and case manager at Lifeline PNG: “It is very, very difficult to get perpetrators to come in to see us for help. They do not see beating their wives as wrong. They say its ‘samting nating (nothing).”

The PNG Law Reform Commission, in that earlier cited landmark research/report of 1992, also documented that ‘wife beating’ was condoned by a large proportion of the PNG population – both men and women.

Australian National University academic Richard Eves, in his 2006 study on PNG men’s attitudes and behaviour, observed: “There is no doubt that the prevailing gender ideology embraces the view that violence is an entirely appropriate corrective to any failure of wives to fulfil their perceived marital duties.”

How can these problems of cultural attitudes be corrected so victims of DV receive the justice that they deserve or the peace that they desire?

The Lowy Institute analysis, after consulting trauma specialist Professor Judy Atkinson, who has been working on DV in Port Moresby settlements, said this: “There is a yearning (among Papua New Guineans) for culturally-appropriate, schools-based prevention programs teaching non-violent conflict resolution and tackling some of the vexed issues concerning male behaviour and identity in a changing society.”

Christine Wamala, Lifeline Crisis Centre matron and Case Worker, adds: “We have been carrying out sensitising campaigns in schools and communities where we stress to the boys and men that violence against women is wrong.

“There is a big need to educate men, to get to the root of the issue before it becomes a problem. Most of these families do not know how to address domestic disagreements; they do not know how to sit and talk to solve a small family problem. Both the husband and wife argue until the discussion becomes violent and ends with the woman getting bashed. They think arguing is ‘normal’,” she says.

Christine, who has worked throughout Central Province in her previous role as Child Fund project officer, says Papua New Guinean families need a lot of awareness and education on conflict resolution. Incorporating family values and GBV/FSV awareness into the education system beginning in early childhood learning are also needed, she says.

“Most Papua New Guineans do not think hitting your wife is wrong! But these are human rights violations. It is wrong to hit someone else – anybody! We need that kind of awareness to go out. A lot of awareness. And the police must also know that it is wrong and must act upon these cases.”

Four years since its passing, the Family Protection Act has done very little for PNG women. Meanwhile, they get beaten mercilessly at the hands of oblivious men with many of them losing their lives while their protectors, the Police, dismisses their plight as minor misdemeanours.

*This feature article has also appeared in The National and the Post-Courier newspaper s and is also online on The National website.

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