When I first began researching Papua New Guinea whilst back in the UK I read a document that stated, “Traditionally women have a low status in society”. It was hard to conceive whilst back in the UK what that actually meant. Just a quick 'look away now' warning about this blog as I have had to make some mention of recent traumatic events.
The world, and PNG has been shocked in recent months by a series of internationally condemned attacks on women - including the burning alive of a young mother, the beheading of a former teacher and the gang rape of an American academic in Madang province. Violence towards women affects every part of life and work here. My own life is no exception The longest walk I am able to do is the 10 minute walk to church on a Sunday morning. I do not go to markets alone and it is very rare that I leave the house after dark. Relatively speaking I am safe and to some extent responsible for my own safety but for local women life is much more difficult. Women are often seen as the possession of a man and I have witnessed men beating their wives in the street with no one helping the woman. Only yesterday in the news was the case of a man who had beaten his wife for four days but she couldn't afford for him to go to prison, because without him there would be no family income.
When ‘Women Arise’ announced that there would be a National Haus Crai (or day of Mourning) for women then women from all over PNG, including foreigners like myself, pledged their support. I wanted to stand alongside the women of PNG because it is now my home and because violence against woman is an international issue. In the UK on average 100 women are murdered by their partners each year. It’s not just a PNG problem and PNG isn’t all bad.
On the Sunday before the Haus Crai took place it was Mother’s day here in PNG. It was clear from the celebrations that most people here really look up to their mothers, and their wives. I talked to taxi drivers who were excitedly planning to cook for their wives, and attended a Mother’s day party at the local church where the oldest women in the church (Bubu Meri) were celebrated and clearly loved. The children asked me if I was a mother and with a little emotion I said how my boy was all grown up now and in another country. I was immediately led to a chair and then waited on by the children and men of the church. I even had an ice cream and a beautiful chocolate cake was presented to the women. The churches are full of men who care about their wives and worry about their daughters and nieces and many of these same men were part of the performances and presentation at the Haus Crai.
The Haus Crai took place on the 14th and 15th May at the national stadium and across the country as women and men kept watch overnight and prayed for a new dawn for PNG. Women demonstrated, gave speeches and joined together in song and prayer for the country of PNG. We attended the night vigil and I confess that when the list of names of women killed and raped in the last six months was read out I could not hold back the tears. We held hands and stood in silence alongside women for the Highlands, Islands and other provinces as well as those from across the world. We heard that at the same time vigils were being held in Fiji, Australia, the UK and America and we began to believe that change may just be possible. But I also thought of all the women that could not be there because it isn’t safe to travel after dark. Public transport is dangerous and stops running at 6pm and unlike me the local women don’t have access to the G4S convoy to go out after dark.
The following day we attended the presentation of a petition to the Prime Minister and we were in the press section to hear his response. "I want to express our sympathy for all the victims of this despicable violence in our communities throughout the country."
I know that I am only here for 12 months, and it is unlikely that by next April I will take an evening stroll through Port Moresby, but perhaps the Women Arise movement will one day make that happen.
I shall leave the final words here to Esther Igo, who organised the Haus Crai:
"We have been beaten. We have been beheaded. We have been beaten to a pulp, I stand here shaking, Prime Minister because this is historical for PNG women to come together and talk to you from our heart. From the bottom of our hearts, enough is enough."
In memory of Kepari Leniata