Foreign Policy Blogs

The dark side of “paradise”

Storm in paradise, courtesy vgm8383/flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

The South Pacific: a region of inviting sandy beaches, turquoise waters – and unacceptable levels of violence against women. Life is especially difficult in Papua New Guinea, where an estimated 70% of women will be raped or physically assaulted in their lifetime. If this isn’t shocking enough, perhaps the news that witch-hunts still exist – with “witches” in PNG burnt alive or beheaded – will make you sit up and take notice.

Beaches and palm trees may present an idyllic picture-postcard idea of the South Pacific, but what’s less publicized is that “[s]exual and gender-based violence is an entrenched, systematic and widespread human rights problem in the Pacific”, with women making up the overwhelming majority of those affected. Physical punishment is often used

“to discipline women who are seen as stepping outside of their prescribed gender roles e.g. failing to prepare food on time or complete housework or speaking to other men. The main reasons men gave for the existence of intimate partner violence were: jealousy, drinking, acceptability as a form of discipline and gender inequality. When asked what their wives should do to improve the situation, the overwhelming response was that she should learn to obey him.”

While this specific quote refers to the tiny nation of Kiribati, I would wager that attitudes are not much different across the islands dotted throughout the region; supported by (conservative) religious Christian teachings (and Hinduism) which place the man at the head of the household, societies are not likely to be referred to as fair and equal anytime soon.

PNG is no different; a country where tradition pervades everyday life, women are often marginalized. In her paper on gender-based violence (GBV) in Papua New Guinea, Laura Baines notes that “GBV has been, and continues to be, very much culturally and socially sanctioned in PNG.” In a series of heartbreaking photographs, Vlad Sokhin has documented the eye-opening reality women face on the islands, which I strongly recommend you look at.

In February 2013, a woman claimed to be a witch – 20-year old Kepari Leniata – was tortured, then doused in petrol and burnt alive in the city of Mount Hagen. She had been accused of somehow causing the death of a 6-year old boy. Over Easter reports surfaced of six women being tortured with red-hot iron rods on suspicion of witchcraft, with the most recent case picked up by the media – that of Helen Rambali, her sister Nikono and Nikono’s daughters – ending with Helen beheaded and her relatives slashed with machetes. The video below, from the Sydney Morning Herald, explains more:

While sorcery and witchcraft are an inescapable part of PNG belief systems (though the 1971 Sorcery Act has now officially been repealed) there are increasing suggestions that jealousy and economics are fuelling the situation and contributing to the increase in this ‘social terrorism.’ In his article, Tim Elliot notes that

“In a country where the status of women is somewhere between food dispenser and farm implement, the threshold for accusations can be laughably low. Women are targeted on the basis of rivalries, grudges and jealousies, on the basis of dreams and half-remembered stories, or on what people say when they are sick or delirious. They are targeted if they are old, ugly or deformed, if they are sick or greedy or ‘too successful'”

while Jo Chandler writes that,

“Tradition has in places morphed into something more malignant, sadistic and voyeuristic, stirred up by a potent brew of booze and drugs; the angry despair of lost youth; upheaval of the social order in the wake of rapid development and the super-charged resources enterprise; … schools and health systems propelling women out of customary silence and men, struggling to find their place in this shifting landscape bitterly, often brutally, resentful.”

Attempts are being made by courageous women to counter the frankly horrific situation, such as Ume Wainetti, of the PNG Family and Sexual Violence Committee. You can watch her speak here. She’s been asked why the women of PNG don’t mobilize as women in India did and her answer is simple: ‘PNG is a country of over 800 languages where 68% of women are illiterate. How can we?’

First impressions can be deceiving. While the South Pacific, on a superficial level, appears sun-kissed and exotic, there’s a deadly undercurrent dragging women down. It needs to stop.



Cate Mackenzie

Cate works as an editor in Zürich, Switzerland. She holds an MA in Comparative and International Studies from ETH Zurich, and a BA (Hons) in International Studies with Political Science from the University of Birmingham (UK).

She has previously lived and worked in Fiji and the US.