COVID-19 and Gender-Based Violence in Papua New Guinea
On March 24th Papua New Guinea’s (PNG) Government declared a state of emergency in the country. Although by late June there were only 11 reported cases, eight recoveries and zero deaths, weak testing capabilities might have resulted in misleading data. Thus, concern from the authorities remained, and the government decided to adopt strong containment measures. It started in January 2020, when flights from Asia were banned, international flights reduced and mandatory health declarations imposed. The National Emergency Operations Centre (NEOC) emerged as the institution in charge of coordinating efforts to contain the spread of the virus. Some of the measures it imposed in March were two initial weeks of lockdown that extended until August. Restrictions included grounding of domestic flights, closing schools and universities, curfew starting at 8 pm and ending at 6 am, banning public gatherings and alcohol, significantly limited public transport and roadblocks of Port Moresby’s essential routes. However, in June, the government finalised the state of emergency as the NEOC continued leading operations.
Implications of COVID-19 restrictions in the lives of women and girls
Nevertheless, as Dr Fiona Hukula, a senior research fellow at the Nationa Research Institue explains, it is equally important to acknowledge and address the crisis as well as the problems that may arise as a result of it, especially gender violence. It is necessary to highlight that PNG has a severe problem of gender-based violence as it ranked 161 out of 162 countries assessed with the highest gender inequality index. Before Covid-19, gender-based violence was already a pressing reality. The Overseas Development Institute presented in 2015 a report showing that 41% of men in the country have admitted raping a woman at least once, two-thirds of women reported suffering physical or sexual abuse, and 7.7% of men declared they have helped to perpetuate male rape. Since the state of emergency was declared issues of inequality and gender-based violence have enhanced. Mainly due to the lockdown restrictions and the economic and healthcare crisis implications. Lockdown, including curfew restrictions, roadblocks and public transport limitations have forced families to spend more time together. Families that already had violent or abusive members are in a highly vulnerable position. Abusive members, more time together and in some cases, substances that trigger violence are a combination that results in gender violence. This is the example of a woman in East Pomio whose husband has homebrew equipment. He has been consistently raping and physically abusing her. A relative or acquaintance from her -the nature of the individual is not disclosed- has assisted in removing the homebrew equipment to prevent the husband from consuming more alcohol.
Alternatively, families who did not have previously manifested gender violence attacks have surged because of the pandemic. One of the leading causes for this surge in violence is the financial pressure households are experiencing due to the economic standstill and job losses. A report submitted by the International Women’s Development Agency mentions a case of a mother in Jiwanka that illustrates unprecedented violence and how socio-economic pressures are blamed on women. Since the state of emergency started the family’s income, reliant in farming, was significantly reduced. Moreover, the government stopped offering free education, and she was concerned with her daughter’s tuition. Consequently, the mother decided to take care of the family’s savings and be more cautious with spendings. She stopped giving her husband money for gambling, and that resulted in a violent reaction from him. He has been physically abusing her since April and accused her of sorcery. This type of accusations are severe in PNG and can result in torture and even burning people alive. The neighbours are concerned because they claim it is the first time the husband has been manifesting these behaviours.
Limitations to seek help and police harassment on women
Furthermore, alternatives for women and girls to seek help have been reduced during the state of emergency. Although UNICEF in collaboration with Child fund has prompted the expansion of a national helpline to assist families with abusive members, the local authorities have not responded efficiently to the needs of those at risk. In some cases, police have been involved in situations of female harassment rather than protection. Policeman tends to enforce curfews violently into women vendors. Considering that women represent 80% of market vendors, there is a largely female population that has to endure harassment through verbal and physical assault as well as police property damage. Police brutality was the case of a woman who reported being hit with a stone in the market to enforce a curfew.
Moreover, there are significant obstacles that limit women when seeking help from the authorities. Frequently, they are unable to access emergency hotlines -such as the one previously mentioned provided by UNICEF and Child fund- due to the remote mountainous areas with low density where some live. Furthermore, they do not always own mobile phones, since males dominate most items in the house, including phones and the price of phone credit increased during lockdown from 3.50 to 4.50 kina. Rising costs make it difficult for women to buy phone services outside their male-controlled household. Similarly, when women try to seek help from local authorities, they are forced to face more obstacles. Local authorities severely lack a gendered perspective of the problem. Eastern HighlandsFamily Voice, an organisation that works to counter gendered based violence, observed that police was ignoring reports of domestic violence and requiring to stick to restrictive measures such as curfew and spending lockdown in abusive households.
Female Leadership: Potential solution to address gender injustice
Therefore it is clear that the women in PNG face conditions of social injustice in public and private spheres of society. It is imperative to point out how her daily life conditions and her capabilities are being considerably limited by the state and by their families previous and during Covid-19. Thus, it would be useful for the government to re-evaluate through a gendered perspective how local authorities are nullifying agency and perpetuating maldistribution of resources. A potential solution that has already been recommended by the United Nations is providing more representation to women and developing female leadership. Yet, there is a long way to go considering that since 1975 only three women have been part of the parliament at any point, seven been elected overall in 45 years and in 2017 any women was a political representative.
Nevertheless, there has been some progress as the NEOC accounted for 35% to 45% of women holding some senior roles involved in the decision making of Covid-19 emergency plan. The importance of female leaders in the institutional body of PNG could significantly contribute to current issues of gender-based violence and any other social, economic or political issues that might face during these times of crisis. Women have the potential to have a positive impact through leadership as the National Democratic Institute shows research on they tend to focus more on inclusion, life and education quality as well as better health services than their males holding office. A good starting point would be providing platforms or networks that give a voice to civically engaged women that are taking action in their community, workplace, family or academia. Representation is critical to address the pandemic levels of violence, and the government institutions have to incorporate gendered evaluation to their shortcomings.
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