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Addressing the epidemic of domestic violence

Tessie Soi outside the Family Crisis Center. From January to June in 2008.saw 119 cases, including domestic abuse, child abuse, even suicide attempts. Forty percent are overdoses, mostly panadol but also bleach and quarter child abuse, many of them rapes.
(Brennon Jones/IRIN)

The 38-year-old woman first arrived at the Family Support Centre (FSC) at Port Moresby General Hospital in August 2008. "The violence has been going on for years," she told IRIN. "In July my husband gave me a black eye and bruises."

She was referred by the FSC to the Individual Community Rights Advocacy Forum (ICRAF), a local NGO, for help in drafting a restraining order but the process takes time and she ultimately returned home.

By early September she was back at the centre, this time with a broken arm. Her husband had dragged her to the ATM, forced her to withdraw all the family savings, and then told her to "go piss off", she said. "My biggest concern is that my five-year-old child is still with him."

Some of the highest rates of violence and abuse of children and women in the world occur in Papua New Guinea. Seventy-five percent of children report physical abuse and about 80 percent report verbal abuse in the home, according to a UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) regional survey.

Most of the country's 800 tribes live in remote, inaccessible areas where the extended family is the principal rule of law. The domestic violence and abuse are ascribed by UNICEF and other agencies to a male-dominated culture where women and girls are less valued than boys. Adopted or orphaned children face particularly hard times.

According to a Human Rights Watch report, about 75 percent of children who come into conflict with the law experience some form of police violence, including "panel beating" - battering with gun buts and steel bars. Some parents see this as an acceptable kind of tough discipline, according to UNICEF.

Safe havens

Many of the abused wives, lovers and children end up at family support centres such as the FSC in Port Moresby or smaller clinics, which provide a temporary refuge. The FSC has been operating since 1999 with salaries paid by the hospital.

Photo: Brennon Jones/IRIN
Tessie Soi (left) and social worker Priscilla Agelava (centre) counsel a woman who has been abused by who runs the Family Crisis Centre at Port Moresby General Hospitalher husband

UNICEF has been providing assistance to the Family Sexual Violence Action Committee, an NGO, which trains community groups countrywide, in addition to the five provincial and two district hospital centres, in counselling.

"The government has committed to establishing Family Support Centres in all provincial hospitals and UNICEF is committed to supporting the realisation of these and mini-centres in six districts," said Bruce Grant, child protection chief of UNICEF.

According to Tessie Soi, who runs the Port Moresby centre, in the first six months of 2008, it treated 119 cases of abuse. While they are usually referred by the hospital's emergency department, some are walk-ins. "They include domestic abuse, child abuse, even suicide attempts," she told IRIN. "Forty percent are overdoses, mostly Panadol but also bleach." A quarter of the cases are child abuse, many of them rapes, she said.

The centre, which has five employees, including social workers, offers trauma and crisis-management and child abuse counselling. Patients can only stay for a night and are then referred to House Ruth, which is run by the City Mission, a local NGO, or to ICRAF. Even then the maximum stay is two weeks. If no rooms are available, they attempt to find relatives to take them in.

System failure

"We refer them to the welfare department or ICRAF which employs paralegals to draw up restraining orders," Soi said, "but the welfare system often kicks them back because it is so understaffed."

Photo: Brennon Jones/IRIN
Senior Principal Magistrate Noreen Kanasa of the Family Court in Port Moresby

She concedes: "We really don't know how many successfully got restraining orders, but, nonetheless, almost all women return home even if they are in the process of pursuing a restraining order or obtained one, and the cycle of violence begins anew."

PNG has 103 magistrates nationwide, and according to Noreen Kanasa, senior principal magistrate in the Family Court in Port Moresby, a process is under way to make the court system more responsive to abuse cases. Port Moresby has the only Family Court, well-trained clerks and ability to process large caseloads.

"We recently did a consultation in four regions of the country," Kanasa told IRIN. They found the welfare departments overloaded and if abuse victims were ultimately successful in obtaining a restraining order, they often did not know where to go.

"We found that some court clerks were not so sensitive to their plight and that often the victim didn't have anyone to deliver the summons," said Kanasa. While the police should normally do it, they often did not have the cars or even the petrol and so would ask for money for fuel. "Most of these people are poor," said Kanasa. "If they don't have the money to pay the police they go on their own and issue the restraining order to their husbands … this unfortunately usually triggers a new round of violence and abuse."

UNICEF and other stakeholders are now working with the justice system to help streamline the process and improve its effectiveness.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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