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Violence and belief in magic raise risk of HIV for women

Three women smile to the camera in Madang, Papua New Guinea
(David Swanson/IRIN)

High levels of sexual violence and a cultural belief in witchcraft are putting an increasing number of women at risk of HIV in Papua New Guinea (PNG), health experts say.

According to the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), PNG accounts for most of the 30,000 reported cases of people living with HIV in the Pacific region, around 59 percent of which are women.

“This might be due to most HIV surveillance data coming from antenatal clinics where pregnant women are tested, a [genuine] high incidence among women, or both,” Stuart Watson, UNAIDS country director told IRIN.

PNG’s HIV prevalence of 0.9 percent is the highest among Pacific region countries.

Violence contributing to HIV

However, gender inequality is proving a major driver in the spread of HIV. “The low status of women in the community makes them prone to violence - sexual and otherwise,” Watson said. 

Gender-based violence is widespread among the country’s 6.5 million ethnically divided inhabitants.

The PNG Law Reform Commission reported that 70 percent of women had been physically abused by their husbands, and in some parts of the country the number reaches 100 percent.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) estimated that 50 percent of women in PNG have experienced forced sex in their lifetime.

Abused girls at higher risk of HIV

A UNAIDS study found strong links between gender-based violence and HIV infection, and noted that the first sexual encounter of many girls was forced. “These circumstances make it extremely difficult to negotiate condom use. The trauma of experiencing abuse usually sets off a pattern of unsafe sexual practices,” Watson said.

The report also found that women who had been sexually abused as children, or experienced sexual abuse by an intimate partner, were twice as likely to test positive for HIV than those who had not.

Adding to the HIV risk that women are exposed to, it is common practice for men to have multiple sexual partners and wives. “Polygamy is an accepted practice,” said Ume Wainetti, head of the Family Sexual Violence Centre (FSVC) in PNG.

“Older men take on a younger bride because they think she is “clean” [free of HIV infection]. “Some girls also become victims of gang rapes, known as ‘line-ups’,” Wainetti said.

Witchcraft and other cultural practices

Human rights watchdog Amnesty International reported that “puri-puri” or “sanguma”, a traditional belief in witchcraft and magic, is widely practised in remote communities and highland provinces, and is often “a pretext for brutal acts of violence against women who are accused of being a witch and spreading HIV.”

“Sorcery is still practiced,” said John [not his real name], an office employee in the capital, Port Moresby. “People buy spells to avenge transgressions, or if someone gets sick and they don’t know how to explain it, they say it is due to sorcery - it’s a much easier explanation for many. Sometimes you need someone to blame [for a death].”

The Amnesty report also noted that women are six times more likely to be accused of witchcraft than men. Under the 1971 Sorcery Act of PNG, it is a criminal act punishable by up to two years in prison.

The UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, Rashida Manjoo, ended her week-long visit to the country in March by calling for the government to repeal the act.

“I was shocked to witness the brutality of the assaults perpetrated against suspected sorcerers, which in many cases include torture, rape, mutilations and murder. Any misfortune or death within the community can be used as an excuse to accuse such person of being a sorcerer,” Manjoo said.

Watson pointed out that “The belief in sorcery makes for little health-seeking behaviour, and this makes matters worse, especially for women.”

According to Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID), HIV is one of the biggest developmental challenges facing this mineral-rich nation.

If HIV continues to spread at its current rate, AusAID estimates that over half a million Papua New Guineans will be living with HIV by 2025.

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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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