Child abuse in Papua New Guinea
Children part of UNICEF programmes in Papua New Guinea. (Source: UNICEF Humanitarian Situation Report Number 6)
Child abuse is a reality for most children in Papua New Guinea (PNG). Minors tend to be victims of abuse and exploitation while lacking education, healthcare services, and a legal framework that protects them. This issue tends to manifest mainly through verbal violence, violent discipline, and sexual abuse.
Approximately 80% of children had suffered from verbal violence and 75% of physical violence. Additionally, 85% of fathers admitted beating their children and 29% of children reported they are beaten at least once by a male family figure. This data shows how physical violence is completely normalized reaching epidemic levels.
Furthermore, child sexual abuse is massively present in PNG´s families. According to a study conducted by Medecins Sans Frontieres - MSF (Doctors without Borders), almost 94% of the victims of sexual abuse attended were women and girls. Particularly, girls are at higher risk since they cannot defend themselves easily nor seek assistance outside their legal guardian. Although the results show insightful data, many more victims have not had the means or capacity to seek psychological, medical, or legal assistance.
Namely, girls are highly exposed in every social scenario including their close social circle. Potential sexual abusers are amongst male family members, neighbours, friends, or stepfathers. It can frequently result in unexpected pregnancies or serious injuries for the victim. The case of Lara illustrates this inhuman reality. Lara was 13 years old when she sought help at the MSF health facilities. She arrived in a precarious state due to the constant beating of her uncle. When her family realized she was being frequently raped, they blamed her and beat her as if it was her responsibility. The personnel of the healthcare facility reported the case to child services hoping the legal system would take care of Lara. Sadly, they waited for hours for child services but no one came. In the end, Lara returned home, concerned about cooking dinner on time for her family.
It is unacceptable that the PNG authorities and families are allowing these type of events take place. The level of brutality coming from men like Lara’s uncle is inhuman. One would expect cases like this being the ultimate terror. However, sexual violence in PNG escalates to massive levels of cruelty. For instance, one in six children, victims of sexual abuse, are under five years old. Joanne tells the story of her and her 10-month baby. She was severely malnourished and had to leave her baby with the father while she begged for food. After she returned, she noticed the baby was in pain and had a severe fever. She sought help at MSF facilities in Port Moresby after she noticed the baby had her genitals swollen and bruised. Joanne immediately suspected of the father, since he had already sexually assaulted her eldest daughter.
There are many more similar cases as the previous. Both of them shed light on patterns that frequently take place: victims are female, underage and the perpetrator was a close male member of the family. This points out two main underlying issues behind the whole cycle of violence in PNG. First, the younger the victim, the more likely the perpetrator was close or a member of the family. Second, epidemic violence starts at home and is destined to escalate.
The question is: why are these patterns taking place? On one hand, it is clear that a minor cannot protect himself and seek help without the support or consent of their primary caretaker. As children, they are still developing physically, emotionally, and cognitively. They have very few control over their surroundings and can fail to identify possible threats and risks. They need an adult that has enough experience to guide, nurture, and protect them. The problem is that in PNG the adult that should be developing these responsibilities can also be the perpetrator.
On the other hand, these cases keep occurring because the family is the source of violence and sexual abuse. This teaches children that violence and abuse are a normal part of human relations when they are not. The victims can become perpetrators. A child that has grown in a violent, abusive, and dysfunctional family can export and escalate these behaviours into his or her adult life.
Naturally, one would try to find potential solutions coming from the government and the legal system. Yet, it is pretty disappointing to find out that neither the state nor local authorities are doing enough. For instance, there is a data crisis since the few studies conducted to assess child abuse are limited. Save the Children’s country director, Jennifer El-Sibai stated in 2016 that there was a serious lack of national data. One of the few available reports that measured the urgency of child abuse was the small scale study previously mentioned conducted by MSF. However, this study is partially outdated and just considers the experience of 3, 056 survivors seeking assistance from 2014 to 2015. It might have left aside many victims that did not seek help in many other locations.
It is no surprise that Ms. Eli-Sibai and Save the Children are calling for a management information system that can determine the scale of the problem. Data would provide enough information to develop a more structured and resilient legal framework. This will allow institutions to tackle the short and long term physical and emotional consequences of child abuse victims.
Although there are clear efforts pushing for a change such as the National Child Protection Policy (2017-2027) and Lukautim Pikinini Act (Child Protection-2016), it is necessary to implement more robust strategies. It would be useful to focus on private and government funding on local authorities to successfully implement Child Protection acts and policies. Considering that police stations have reported that sometimes they do not even have ink or paper to print and accusation files, any contribution to transforming laws and acts into real actions would be welcome.
Furthermore, tackling police negligent performance would also help significantly. Having in mind that local authorities are male-dominated and that there have been several reports of police brutality it is imperative to focus that they do not take advantage of the law being on their side. The PNG child protection system lacks prepared, responsive, and efficient members who are sensitive and understanding enough towards the realities of the victims.
There is a lot more to do but definitely some progress has been made. More than six acts and policies have been passed in the last 6 years. Additionally, UNICEF, Save the Children, MSF and many other NGOs are working towards a more safe and healthy childhood in PNG.