Sadly gender based violence is one of the things that Papua New Guinea (PNG) is renowned for, not the kind, smiley people or the breathtaking landscape. Research suggests that 66% of women have been beaten up by their husband or partner with the figure shockingly close to 100% in some areas of the country; that 50% of women have been forced to have sex against their will, inside and outside of marriage; and that 60% of men admit to participating in group sex or gang rape. The numbers when you consider the impact on children, families and the whole community are even greater.
But it is very easy to get sucked in by statistics and sensational coverage of this emotive subject and not look at the excellent work being done to slowly change the experience of many Papua New Guineans.
Voluntary Service Overseas’ (VSO) health programme is making headway within one of its Gender Based Violence (GBV) projects. The work to combat GBV in PNG aims to change attitudes that will in time lead to behaviour change. This is a very slow process, but for future generations it offers hope.
The GBV project is currently working in five wards across two provinces, Madang and Mendi, in PNG. The project aims to work in two areas, linking prevention with treatment; facilitating change of attitudes about GBV, increasing knowledge of the law and family sexual violence (FSV) and supporting improved service delivery to enable better quality treatment and increased access to appropriate services.
In Madang, Catherine Bedford, VSO volunteer whose background as a psychiatric nurse specialising in trauma, is working in the treatment arm of the project. She is helping to set up a Family Support Centre (FSC) at Modilon Hospital where survivors of physical and sexual violence will receive a full package of care. They will get medical treatment, prophylaxis for HIV and sexually transmitted infections, vaccinations, psychological treatment, legal advice and follow up care including psychological follow up, long-term counseling if they want it, retesting for HIV and they will be given a medical report that can be used in court. This comprehensive and streamlined service will significantly transform the care being offered to survivors.
Following eight months of being at the hospital Catherine has identified areas for development and some changes have already happened: “All women now receive the same treatment no matter what time of day or night it is and at weekends as well. Before, sexual assault survivors who came in the evening or weekends had no access to post exposure prophylaxis, which significantly reduces the risk of getting HIV. There is now a specialist pack that is left on the out of hours’ wards. There is also more of a sense of giving the women space and privacy and less that they are left in the middle of the chaotic emergency department. When women have overcome the first barrier of asking for help, the reality is that they will have travelled for many hours from remote villages to reach the hospital. This means that it is essential that they get a good quality service that meets their needs and that they are not told to come back the next day because the medicine that they need is not available.”
In the short term Catherine is also offering survivors psychological intervention. As soon as staff is recruited she will be capacity building so that they can deliver the service. She has commenced regular hospital meetings to look at referral and treatment pathways, has put together training packages for hospital staff and is working closely with the other organisations in the province to achieve sustainable change. In Mendi, Stella Wragg, VSO volunteer who is also a psychiatric nurse is based in the remote highlands community to set up a FSC at Mendi General Hospital.
“It is essential that they get a good quality service that meets their needs and that they are not told to come back the next day because the medicine that they need is not available.”
Charles Olinga, VSO volunteer whose area of expertise is in community mobilisation is working within the prevention arm of the project, he works across Madang and Mendi with community based organisations and community leaders. Charles’ partner organisation is the Country Women’s Association in Madang and together they have been delivering training and workshops on subjects like gender sensitisation looking at demystifying myths and biases that maintain the violence surrounding gender, people’s attitudes and the law. They have conducted a baseline study into attitudes and knowledge surrounding GBV, the results have been fed back to the communities and have come up with a community action plans. He is also involved with male advocacy training and working with village ward leaders.
Significant changes in the law to do with GBV and FSV are still mostly unknown within communities; many are unaware that rape is illegal within marriage. It is still common for families to seek home treatment for survivors and compensation from the perpetrator. The effect of this is that survivors often don’t come to the hospital in time for prophylaxis as the family is looking for the perpetrator. With education about what survivors need the hope is that they will use the service.
With the amazing work being done in this project, the experience of survivors should be that they have quicker access to quality, more appropriate treatment and services. The statistics and ingrained behavior won’t change overnight, but long-term the hope is that there is more knowledge and awareness of the implications of GBV, particularly on children and that these changes go some way to preventing wide spread violence.