The rates of violence against women in Papua New Guinea (PNG) are among the highest in the world for a country not at war. Men are depicted as violent rapists, machete wielding savages and armed gang members. These negative portrayals instill fear into people and do little to focus on the individuals that challenge this stereotype and the norm about how you treat people.
The situation appears bleak with research suggesting that 66% of women have been beaten up by their husband or partner with a figure shockingly close to 100% in some areas of the country; but instead of focusing on the hard to swallow facts and sensational stories, what about the men in PNG who are tarnished by these statements and are actually doing a great deal to redress the balance?
Kepo Cosi is a kind, soft, gentle, smiley man from Rossun in Manus. He is 28 years old and certainly isn’t the type of man that you would picture in your mind if you read all the sensational coverage about violence and men’s behaviour in PNG. He works as a nursing officer at the psychiatric clinic at Modilon hospital in Madang. He is well groomed, dresses smartly and warmth radiates from him as soon as he greats you. He is punctual, reliable and extremely dedicated to his role. He is a nurse and that in itself challenges the deeply masculine culture in PNG where roles are still very much defined. But he is an example of the very many positive, Papua New Guinean males living and working in PNG.
In 2004 he left his coconut fringed homeland in Manus to study birth training and nursing at Goroka university in the highlands of PNG. From a young age he was inspired to work in the health profession: “All people should be able to access and enjoy good health services. I feel that it isn’t fair that people suffer from mental health problems and can’t use the services equally. I want them to be able to have the same experience as other patients. I want to be able to do my best in this field.”
Mental health is an issue that is little understood and often goes completely unrecognised or wrongly diagnosed in PNG. Kepo treats patients that have mental health problems, chronic mental illnesses, as well as people with emotional problems including marriage problems, stress and worry. He offers them counseling and gives them treatment where required. And it is his attitude that makes him different, he doesn’t just sit back waiting for things to happen, he is at the forefront of providing good service and ensuring that there is fairness and equality for all patients.
Kepo is very active in his church and he regularly reaches out to nearby communities sharing messages of health and equality. He is a true example of a male advocate and role model within his community: “What you do has a bigger impact than what you say, you need to be practical about how you deliver information to people. I try to share practical ways and information to people and act like a role model. Some people approach me to talk confidentially about certain things. I think that I have a great impact in what I say. ”
Like most parts of PNG his hometown of Rossun is also no stranger to the ingrained culture of violence although it is not so visible and tends to happen silently. “It is a nationwide issue that needs to be addressed at all levels; I try to have an impact at my level. To me I see that life has to be fair to all of us, both males and females and even though there are differences, life is the same. From a man’s perspective I see that there is no need to create violence or problems in marriage, it needs to be fair. People have an eagerness to make a change within themselves and within their families but they need to be constantly reminded. It is hard to break the patterns of behaviour and the habits that have lasted a lifetime.”
Male advocates play such a fundamental role in changing attitudes and behaviours in a deeply ingrained patriarchal culture. Voluntary Services Overseas has invested in Kepo, giving him training from psychiatric nurse, Catherine Bedford to help him continue to offer high quality service to his patients. The concept of male advocacy plays an important role throughout all of VSO’s gender programming, reaching out through these community change makers to slowly shift habits and ingrained beliefs.
You may well find examples of negative male role models who perpetuate the idea of this supposed unendingly violent country but in communities if you look a little closer there are also examples of positive male role models that challenge these norms, traditional thinking and behaviours. It is these individuals that should be the focus of our attention and those that deserve our energy. It is through these people that change will happen.