From polygamy to abstinence

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Scholar Sipa Mawe is 43-years-old from Koge village, Simbu, in the highlands of Papua New Guinea (PNG). From a very young age her path was defined for her; Scholar knew that she wouldn’t be able to have children. When she was born there was a cultural ritual in her village where taro, a widely grown root vegetable, was burnt in the fire. This custom meant that she was destined to be infertile and wouldn’t be able to carry a child. From a very young age Scholar had time to come to accept the fact that she wouldn’t bear children but of course this was not easy and it has had a huge impact on her life.

In 1991, when she was 18-years-old, her family arranged a marriage for her; she was happy to enter into a partnership but life with her new match was not good: “My husband knew that I couldn’t have children from the beginning. We adopted two children but he wanted plenty of his own biological children. He was violent towards me and he kept asking me if he could take a second wife. I kept saying ‘no’ but the first question that he would ask me every single day was ‘can I get another wife?’” In the highlands communities of PNG, polygamy is a common practice and is understood to be one of the contributing factors for jealousy and violence in relationships. It is very difficult for a women to stand up against her husbands decision to take on more wives.

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During this time Scholar became really interested and committed to working in the area of women’s issues and was passionate about helping woman who are survivors of gender based violence (GBV). She became a local volunteer supporting the district women’s council, helping them with practical knowledge in health and education. During this time she attended lots of workshops and built her knowledge on GBV.

“He didn’t give me a chance, he moved on with his life, had other girlfriends and when he came back he would tell me. He would threaten me that he would give me HIV.”

Despite her perseverance and the continued refusal to her husband that she was unhappy for him to take a second wife, he still persisted: “He didn’t give me a chance, he moved on with his life, had other girlfriends and when he came back he would tell me all about it. He would threaten me that he would give me HIV. He continued to fool around even though I was still faithful to him. After two years I planned to move out and leave him but before I could make the break he got another wife and used our house with her – the house was built by my son and not him so I went to see my uncle to seek justice. I got permission to burn the house down and then I took off with my children.”

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It was incredibly difficult for Scholar, torn between wanting to stay with her family but to also move on with her life: “One day I went to visit and I saw my husband and his new wife having oral sex so I threw a huge stone at them. I had a big fight with the wife. During the fight my husband kneed me in the face and I lost my front tooth. That night I was very frustrated and I couldn’t sleep. The next day I went to the family sexual violence unit at Kundiawa and I reported the case and the police arrested my husband and his new wife and they were put behind bars for three days.”

After the upset with her husband Scholar felt that she had no choice, so she left her village and came to Madang on the coast to live with her cousin and auntie to move on with her life. This is when she began to pursue a career supporting women in local communities. In 2011 she joined the Real Involvement People with Aims project where she did community home based care for people living with HIV. With more skills under her belt, in 2012 she joined Voluntary Service Overseas as a peer educator for the Most at Risk Populations (MARPS) project. The MARPS intervention is based around peer educators working in identified communities giving awareness about prevention, distributing condoms, encouraging people to know their status, making sure that people attend follow up appointments and referring people to services like family planning. Through highly motivated peer educators like Scholar, the project has been able to reach out to hard to target, key populations in Madang and the work has now extended to other provinces.

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Through her work going to clinics, Scholar has been able to establish that outreach wasn’t being done properly and people were defaulting on their treatment which is a major issue in PNG: “I want to be seen as a role model and share my experience with people to help them seek the essential HIV, STI and GBV services. I go out into communities and make sure that people follow up on their treatment. Defaulters are dying so this is a big problem and I can see that I can be part of the solution to help others.”

“I want to live a peaceful and free life, free from violence and HIV. I am a women with a vision and a mission that I’m driven to accomplish it. I’m still working on it but I will get there.”

From her experience she has made some significant changes in her life and has a firm sight on a positive future for herself: “I don’t want to get married again. I want to live a private life and I don’t want to turn back to a life like before. For the past six years I have abstained from sex. I want to live a peaceful and free life, free from violence and HIV. I am a women with a vision and a mission and I’m driven to accomplish it. I’m still working towards it but I will get there.”

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