Asylum deal prompts concern for PNG women

Asylum deal prompts concern for PNG women

An aid group says the high levels of violence against women and children in PNG make it unsuitable for asylum seekers to be sent there.

An aid group working in Papua New Guinea says the high levels of violence against women and children in the country make it unsuitable for asylum seekers to be sent there.


In a new report, ChildFund Australia says women are regularly raped or subjected to other violence, often involving bush knives, axes, burning and spearing.


And it says children younger than 16 comprise a high proportion of the country's rape victims.


Laura Murphy-Oates with the story.


Enid Barlong has been working as a senior counsellor in Papua New Guinea's main women's shelter for seven years.


Haus Ruth in Port Moresby is one of just a handful of women's shelters in PNG, and women are flown in from around the country to use it.


But with a capacity for just 30 women, with 18 staff, Enid Barlong says resources are stretched.


"Yeah we've had like 33, 32 in the house at one point. We don't turn people away because we don't have space, sometimes we just have to throw a mattress on the floor in the corridoor, the biggest thing is that they're safe."


While there is no official government data on violence against women and children in PNG, the ChildFund Australia report found that over two-thirds of families in PNG have experienced domestic violence.


The report highlights the brutal nature of the attacks on women.


One study cited by the charity found that half of all women in the country would be raped in their lifetime.


Another study reported that a majority of women are beaten during pregnancy.


ChildFund Australia CEO Nigel Spence says the basic support needed to address this violence is virtually non-existent, with only a handful of hospitals across the country equipped to deal with rape victims.


He says the attitude of community leaders - and many PNG men - is also disturbing.


"There seems to be a level of complicity, a silence around the issue where it's regarded as normal and acceptable by many men that it's ok to beat their wives. There's a silence and a lack of condemnation of the issue by leaders at all levels of the community."


Nigel Spence says PNG women and children will potentially be at even greater risk of harm as a result of Australia's deal to send asylum seekers to PNG.


"It's proposing to resettle people in an environment where already it's clear that the government is struggling to provide even the most basic services and the most basic protections. and I think it's an unfair additional burden for the Papua New Guinea government even with help from Australia to find ways to safely and adequately resettle asylum seekers when at the moment basic services and protection rights are not bring upheld for its own citizens."


The women's shelter worker Enid Barlong says she sees women in fear of their lives, facing threats from spouses and relatives if they report their husbands.


She says many women stay at the shelter while applying for court protection orders, but almost half give up because the process takes too long.


"It's supposed to take 24 hours for most urgent cases, between one and two weeks at the most. But it's taking a bit longer than that. So often women give up in the process. Maybe less than 50% of the women who come here will just decide to forget and let go and go back to the husband and just not pursue their case."


ChildFund Australia says another problem is that police are not seen to be taking domestic violence seriously, and there are reports of police officers themselves being the perpetrators.


It also says that physical and sexual violence against children is common.


The ChildFund report finds that half of the reported cases of rape in PNG are from children younger than 16.


A quarter of the victims are as young as 12, and some are under 10.


Ms Barlong says she has been dealing with young rape victims.


"We do have some young girls in here who are victims. We've got a 9 year old- that's the youngest I have at the moment, I've seen some even younger than a few years back. They are that young."


Ume Wainetti is the national program co-ordinator of PNG's Family and Sexual Violence Committee, a NGO that works with the government and the private sector.


She describes PNG's child protection legislation as an outdated relic from colonisation.


Ume Wainetti says without long-promised reforms, new Child Welfare Officers can't be appointed.


"Only a gazetted Child Welfare Officer can act on behalf of a child and many of those officers have left the public service and so we don't have gazetted Welfare Officers that can act on behalf of children when they live in an abusive home or something is happening to children or a child is abducted by another parent we don't have officers."


Ume Wainetti says Port Moresby, with a population of about half-a-million, has only five Child Welfare Officers, and in outlying districts there are none.


She fears PNG's severe shortage of resources to protect children and women will be made worse by the agreement to take asylum seekers from Australia.


"The general feeling is that people don't want these people to come here. I honestly think that they will be better taken care of than Papua New Guineans. Because that's what we see here. Outside people come and they seem to have more advantage than Papua New Guineans."


Ms Wainetti also says there is much confusion in the community over the PNG government's agreement to resettle anyone found to be a genuine refugee, among the asylum seekers currently being sent to Manus Island.


"We don't really understand what is going on. I mean they are being sent to one of the islands where it is a beautiful place to go to if you're a tourist. But there even you know the problems they are going to... they don't have services."


So far, Australia has only been sending male asylum seekers to PNG under the new agreement.


Enid Barlong says if Australia starts sending females, and they get resettled in PNG as refugees, the already stretched resources of her Port Moresby shelter could end up being stretched further.


"We'll have to do it on a case by case. I can't really say how much it's going to have an impact now if we have an influx of people coming in. We've had to deal with international as well who have come and fallen victims here."


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