Eriko Fufurefa, from Henganofi in Papua New Guinea’s Eastern Highlands Province, was married at 15 and endured years of abuse at the hands of her husband until he left her and married another woman. “I was left behind with my children,” she says. “I couldn’t get support.”
Fufurefa is in Brisbane to attend the WOW (Women of the World) at Festival 2018 and the launch of a photography exhibition at QUT Creative Industries Precinct documenting the work Yumi Sanap Strong, a group of PNG human rights defenders who campaign against sorcery-related violence in the country.
She is one of many survivors of gender-based violence in the country. PNG is a poor nation, with 40 per cent of the population living in poverty. Maternal death is common; anywhere between 800 and 2500 women die during childbirth each year.
Gender inequality is a huge issue. It’s estimated that two out of three women have been the victims of gender-based violence.
Sexual assault and gang rape is a terrifying fact of life for many women in PNG. Up to 70 per cent of women will experience sexual assault at least once in their lifetime. One study found that 60 per cent of men surveyed admitted to taking part in at least one gang rape.
“When our cases are reported to the police station, the police tell us it’s a marriage problem and you have to go home and sort it out,” Fufurefa tells me. “The police can’t help us.”
In many cases, rape and violence is perpetrated in tribal warfare. “Women may be targeted by rival groups for rape/gang rape as a means of shaming or provoking the enemy. Women are sometimes sold in exchange for guns or the services of hired gunmen,” notes a 2010 UNIFEM report.
Women and children who flee tribal fighting are especially vulnerable to further violence, homelessness and exploitation.
A recent 7.5 earthquake in the Highlands region made these women’s position even more precarious. This ABC report recounts the story of a woman who had been left homeless after being kidnapped and raped by tribal enemies, only to be rendered homeless again when her “bush material” dwelling was destroyed in the earthquake.
The earthquake has also forced more women and girls to engage in transactional sex, already common in PNG, in order to survive. The UNIFEM report states that, pre-earthquake, as many as two out of three women aged between 15 and 24 provided sex in exchange for money, food and shelter.
Women may be targeted by rival groups for rape/gang rape as a means of shaming or provoking the enemy.
In this environment, it can be almost impossible for women who are victims of violence to get help. “When our cases are reported to the police station, the police tell us it’s a marriage problem and you have to go home and sort it out,” Fufurefa tells me. “The police can’t help us.”
In 2003, Fufurefa took matters into her own hands. In a video produced by Yumi Sanap Strong, she explains how she formed a group with seven other women in her community who were facing similar problems and sought the advice of a local development officer, who suggested she start a women’s organisation and apply for funding. “I went back and gathered mothers and created this women’s group the same week,” she says.
The women ran a food stall selling rice balls and betel nuts to raise enough money to register their organisation, which they called Kafe Women’s Association. Fufurefa contacted a local coffee-growing company to organise employment for local women, who donated a portion of their wages to the collective.
Today Kafe Women’s Association runs education programs around health and gender-based violence and lobbies leaders at community and government levels to act on gender inequality in PNG. Domestic violence was criminalised in PNG in 2016, but Human Rights Watch notes in its World Report 2018 that “police and prosecutors rarely pursue investigations or criminal charges against people who commit family violence—even in cases of attempted murder, serious injury, or repeated rape—and instead prefer to resolve such cases through mediation and/or payment of compensation.”
Fufurefa says Kafe Women’s Association aims to empower local women to make decisions in their own lives. “I’ve been through a lot of problems in my personal life, so I’m using my past experience to help other women.”
Nicola Heath is a freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter @nicoheath.