Sunday, July 21, 2013

Crying Meri: Violence Against Women in Papua New Guinea

The international spotlight is on the small Melanesian nation of Papua New Guinea where the level of violence against women is among the highest in the world. Some 70 percent of women in Papua New Guinea will be raped or physically assaulted in their lifetime, according to Jenny Hayward-Jones, a researcher at Sydney’s Lowy Institute think tank.
Russian born photographer Vlad Sokhin has been documenting the results of this violence against women since 2012 through a project called “Crying Meri.” (Meri is Pidgin for women.) He shares his portraits of the victims and shares their stories, as they were told to him. All photos courtesy Vlad Sokhin

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crying meri 007 dm 1 blog Crying Meri: Violence Against Women in Papua New Guinea

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Ladies dispense tough justice

 PNG-CRIME-SORCERYA PNG woman was set alight in Mount Hagen in Papua New Guinea in February after being accused of sorcery. Picture: AFP Source: AFP

THOSE who appear before magistrates Rhoda Geita, Rita Bray and Mege Baru must abide by three rules: no lawyers, no smoking and no chewing betel nut. These women are highly respected "chairlady" magistrates with Papua New Guinea's village courts, of which there are more than 1600 in the physically stunning but often lawless nation. 
All grandmothers, they agree on one thing: "Female magistrates have to be tough." Baru, who has a don't-mess-with-me demeanour and faint traditional tattoos on her face and hands, reveals that angry defendants "do come and threaten me but I don't feel scared. I will threaten them back."
PNG women are among the world's most disempowered and abused, and a recent series of gruesome murders of women accused of witchcraft and sorcery has fed perceptions that gender violence is worsening. Despite this, the number of female magistrates in the country has exploded in recent years, partly because of training programs run by Australia's aid agency, AusAID.
In 2007, there were just 10 female village court magistrates in PNG; today, there are about 900. I met three veteran female magistrates in Port Moresby earlier this month while travelling to PNG as part of a delegation of Australian journalists sponsored by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Speaking through a translator, Baru - who speaks several tribal languages but no English - supports the PNG government's contentious reinstatement of the death penalty for crimes including murder and aggravated rape.
"It's a good thing because it is a deterrent," she says. "The police have to do something in order for people to take notice."
PNG's National Council of Women also supports the death penalty, viewing it as a remedy to gender violence. "This year, the raping and killing of women has increased, and we are wondering what has gone wrong," the council has said. Yet the revived law has been condemned by the UN and EU, which argue it won't discourage crime; Amnesty International calls it "barbaric".
In PNG, there are fears innocent people could end up being executed by a justice system that is often inconsistent and chaotic.
Baru is one of nine magistrates at the Erima Village Court in Port Moresby. She also works at a police station at the city's notorious Gordons market, a rundown, outdoor food hub where, she says, murders occur regularly.
In a country often riven by tribal fighting and payback-style disputes, village courts play an important role in maintaining community stability. Geita and Bray have listened to details of murder cases so that victims' families can be compensated and further violence avoided - the equivalent of Australian civil cases. These local courts - which may convene under a tree or on a beach - use mediation and fines to deal with other issues ranging from unpaid dowries and land disputes to assault, adultery, theft and the making of illegal brew.
Emboldened by the presence of female magistrates, a growing number of women are airing their grievances. Today, about 40 per cent of the claims brought to village courts are made by women. Geita and Bray tell Inquirer that male magistrates don't always take women's complaints seriously, and that "women come more openly to us if there is a woman on the court". On the other hand, these formidable court officials shake their heads gravely when discussing community conflict caused by "gossiping women"; they say such offenders can end up before local courts, accused of defamation.
Getting women a better deal in their own legal system is a key priority for AusAID. Women now account for about 8 per cent of magistrates in PNG, while PNG governments also have promoted women in the legal field: the country's chief magistrate, solicitor-general and chief ombudsman are women, and there are two female judges on the National Court.
Last month, Prime Minister Peter O'Neill officially apologised for the violence endured by his countrywomen and declared a national day of mourning. But such progress plays out against a backdrop of continuing, endemic violence. Studies quoted by the World Bank suggest more than half of PNG women have been raped, while two-thirds have suffered domestic violence. One AusAID study showed 100 per cent of surveyed Highlands women had suffered violence.
During my visit, a single edition of Port Moresby's Post-Courier newspaper carried stories about three disturbing crimes, all involving young women and girls. In one, a 19-year-old mother was burned with hot iron rods and left to die in the bush. The paper also reported on an escalating child sex trade in the capital.
A third article suggests an eye-for-an-eye philosophy still prevails in rural areas. This report said a teenage Highlands girl allegedly beheaded her father with a bush knife after he raped her. Local leaders agreed she should not be handed over to the police because her father deserved to die.
Such stories may suggest law and order has broken down. However, it also may be that in the era of the mobile phone and social media, violent crimes in isolated areas are likelier to be exposed. Certainly, Baru believes more people are making vexatious sorcery allegations, which usually target women and can lead to murder. In a sorcery killing in February, a 20-year-old woman accused of witchcraft was burned alive in a crowded market. Baru hopes that new, hefty fines for those who make false sorcery allegations will make a difference. So, too, should the recent repeal of the country's Sorcery Act, under which suspicions of sorcery were used as a defence in murder cases.
AusAID's emphasis on law and justice is part of a broader gender rights agenda in PNG. Australia is by far the country's biggest foreign aid donor, with an annual contribution of about $500 million.
Another pressing priority for the aid agency is tackling the country's maternity mortality rate, which is 80 times higher than Australia's. Australian funds are being used to train 1400 midwives, nurses and health workers, many of whom will take their skills to villages with no electricity or roads, let alone a decent hospital.
An important success story is the containment of a feared AIDs epidemic. Until 2009, it was predicted that HIV-AIDS would infect 5 per cent of the PNG population by 2015. But the national rate in 2010-11 was just 0.8 per cent. (The rate is just above 1 per cent in some Highlands provinces and in Port Moresby, and is substantially higher again in high-risk groups such as sex workers). Key to the overall containment, says one local expert, is the provision of anti-retroviral drugs - paid for by the PNG government - and effective treatment programs, many of them paid for by Australia. Australian-funded non-government organisations are treating almost half the PNG men, children and women - including pregnant women - known to be HIV positive.
Getting pregnant women on to treatment is crucial: if an HIV-positive mother-to-be starts drug therapy early during pregnancy, the risk of her transmitting the disease to her baby is less than 1 per cent. Last year, Australia paid for more than 31,000 pregnant women to be tested for the disease.
Despite such tangible outcomes, O'Neill has criticised Australia's aid program for not focusing more on infrastructure projects such as roads; PNG's roads are in a shocking state and there aren't enough of them. O'Neill has said: "We are spreading the development program too thinly. And although the program is very much appreciated, the effect of it has not been felt by the population of Papua New Guinea." AusAID head in PNG Stuart Schaefer rejects these criticisms. "This year Australia will spend $180 million, 37 per cent of our aid program, on infrastructure in PNG, including on road rehabilitation and maintenance, health centres and school facilities," he says. He adds that last month O'Neill and Julia Gillard agreed Australia would work with PNG to plan and cost infrastructure projects including a highway upgrade and hospital redevelopment.
But Schaefer is adamant "infrastructure is not the only priority for the aid program. To lift people out of poverty we also need to address better service delivery in the priority areas of education, health, and law and justice." He says Australia's HIV programs are saving lives and that other aid projects have "delivered real development results. For example in 2012, we supported the delivery of essential medicines to more than 2000 of PNG's hospitals, health centres and aid posts; the vaccination of over 500,000 children for measles and polio and over 1.2 million women for tetanus."
Then there is the growing cadre of female magistrates.
Geita says that years ago "it was very hard for women to open up about what had happened to them. These days, I think that things are getting better."
Baru agrees, observing: "Sometimes there are things that ladies can't share with men, and in these cases, it is helpful to have women magistrates."

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Work conditions worse: survey

Phoebe Wearne,
The West Australian
Updated June 13, 2013

Never have so many people worked in the furthest corners of WA in some of our harshest conditions.
Yet a new Lifeline WA report based on the results of an anonymous survey of 924 fly-in, fly-out and drive-in, drive-out workers suggests workplace conditions are deteriorating at some sites.

FIFO report summary | FIFO final report | FIFO survey |

A lot of participants said on-site lifestyle was monotonous and boring and that they had experienced fatigue, exhaustion and even burn- out after working long shifts.
Some had experienced deteriorating accommodation standards, cramped conditions, a lack of healthy food and being forced to change rooms regularly.
Some participants said living conditions stopped them from getting a good night's sleep.
Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union mining division secretary Gary Wood said companies risked serious incidents.
Chamber of Minerals and Energy WA chief executive Reg Howard-Smith said there had been dramatic improvements in accommodation quality and the facilities available.

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'Suck it up, princess' culture must change

Angela Pownall,
The West Australian
Updated June 13, 2013

Cultural and organisational change is needed in Australia's fly-in, fly-out industry to tackle issues with mental health and emotional wellbeing, a groundbreaking WA study has warned.
The research, by Lifeline WA and Edith Cowan University psychologists, identified numerous factors affecting workers mentally.
These included high stress from longer periods working away, particularly for those with young children, and disrupted sleep and fatigue from long shifts.
Companies employing FIFO workers needed to address the "suck it up, princess" culture and build policies and services to address workers' mental health needs and combat their reluctance to seek help, the report's authors said.
"Workers did report a sense of powerlessness about their ability to exercise control over their lives in the tightly regimented confines of the FIFO working environment," the report said.
Workers felt vulnerable to intensive scrutinising, intimidation by higher management and the threat of job loss.
They said they had no control after working hours and were not free to move around or have meals at preferred times.
The report said workers also felt trapped because they were financially committed in accordance with their current income and so could not quit.
Other recommendations included targeted support, for example, for workers over 50 who were less likely to seek help, pre-FIFO training to show new employees what to expect and post-employment support to reduce the stigma of getting help for mental health problems and to help people cope.
The Australian Institute of Management WA will use the findings to develop, with Lifeline WA, programs to help managers and workers improve FIFO and drive-in, drive-out experiences.
The research compiled views from 924 FIFO and DIDO workers - 81 per cent men, 80 per cent 49 years old or younger and half parents.

Relationships Australia WA holds one-night seminars for couples considering or who recently started FIFO work. For dates and information, visit WA parenting organisation Ngala also offers advice and a workshop for families with a parent working away. Information is available at

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Working away tough on families

Angela Pownall,
The West Australian
Updated June 13, 2013

When Deanne Hislop's young son Jai began clinging on to his father Paul's leg whenever he tried to leave the house - fearing he would be gone for an unimaginable length of time - she knew she had to make him understand.
Mr Hislop, 33, began work flying to Karratha from their Perth home on a roster of 15 days on and six days off 18 months ago.
For the couple's children Jai, three, and four-year-old Chenin, it was an incomprehensible change.
"My little girl would say things like, what does Daddy's other family look like," Mrs Hislop said.
"It was mainly the understanding for my little boy and trying to explain to him verbally how long dad was going to be away."
To help them understand, Mrs Hislop made a calendar and stickers that showed the children when their father was on the plane, when he was wearing his high-visibility workwear and when he would be coming home.
She said it made a real difference to the children's understanding, so she started making the calendars to sell and has sold almost 4000 to date, with part of the profits going to charity.
Despite the early hiccups, the Hislops, who live on a 2ha property in Two Rocks, said they put a positive light on their FIFO lifestyle.
"It enables me to stay at home with my children and gives us the ability to live outside of Perth because Paul doesn't have to commute to work," she said.
But the challenges of FIFO are clear, none more so than for Tania and Steve Bourke who had their first child Connor five months ago.
Mr Bourke, who works four weeks on and one week off, said it was hard to see his son take a few days to be able to recognise him again when he came home.
"I think the roster is the biggest challenge," he said. "It's tough, especially having a new boy and being away that amount of time."

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Stressed FIFO workers fear seeking help

Angela Pownall,
The West Australian Updated June 13, 2013

ne of Australia's biggest studies of fly-in, fly-out work has uncovered stress, divorce, psychological disorders, a reliance on drugs and alcohol to cope and a stigma attached to seeking help as being prevalent among WA workers.
The anonymous online survey of 924 fly-in, fly-out and drive-in, drive-out workers, which was conducted by suicide prevention group Lifeline WA, revealed a series of mental, physical and emotional issues affecting workers in WA's 90,000-strong industry.


Workers, particularly those away for long periods and with young children, reported becoming increasingly stressed during the rotation, peaking in the days before they left for work again.
The stress was largely caused by separation from their homes and family and most FIFO workers said they had minimal knowledge of the realities of FIFO before joining the industry.
Lifeline WA chief executive Fiona Kalaf said though there was considerable focus on employees' physical safety, there was limited focus on the emotional and mental health of these workers and their families.
The research, which was sponsored by Pilbara company Raw Hire, showed even when workers were aware of formal help offered by their employers, there was a reluctance to take it.
"Stigma is the main barrier to help-seeking, with the principal reason workers do not reach out for assistance being the fear of appearing to be 'soft', weak or unable to cope," she said.
The other main barrier was the inability to access services on remote work sites
A significant number - one in 10 - of the FIFO workers were divorced and those divorcees reported lower wellbeing, higher stress and lower quality relationships with family and friends.
The research also showed a higher prevalence of psychological distress among FIFO workers, compared with the general population.
The FIFO workers said the main benefits of the jobs were the high pay and being able to spend quality time with family during their time off.
Tania Bourke, who has five-month-old Connor with husband Steve who works four weeks on with one week off, echoed the views of many FIFO workers in the survey in believing rosters should be capped at a maximum of three weeks away.
"I just think it comes down to the roster," she said. "It's really hard on families. All other stuff can be worked through. At the end of the day, it's what we signed up to do but him not being here is tough."
Chamber of Minerals and Energy WA chief executive Reg Howard-Smith said FIFO work was a popular and growing work practice for tens of thousands of employees in the resources sector and essential to meet the industry's needs.
He said companies had introduced initiatives such as buddy systems, free counselling and in-room internet so employees could communicate with their partners and family.
Rio Tinto spokesman Gervase Greene said helping its 4000 iron-ore division FIFO workers deal with the challenges of the rosters was an important part of the company's culture.

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