Religion, Healing, and Violence Against Women in Papua New Guinea

Religion, Healing, and Violence Against Women in Papua New Guinea July 5, 2013


Secondary school girls in Papua New Guinea, with a Roman Catholic nun and Australia’s former Prime Minister, Julia Gillard

…and what it can tell us about how to reduce gender-based abuse in Western countries.

This article is part of the summerlong series on HUMANITARIAN MEDICINE at Stories Untold.

One question that many Westerners are puzzled about is how to provide safe spaces for survivors of family and sexual abuse to report what happened to them, particularly in religious contexts.  Some commentators now argue that the source texts of Abrahamic faiths naturally encourage silence about violence against women, because they define power structures as obligatorily run by men; other observers counter that the moral imperative in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and other Abrahamic traditions is clear: people should speak out loudly and boldly about the prevalence of violence against women, and actively work toward stopping it. This debate seems important because it goes right to the heart of how people interpret the Jewish and Christian Bibles and the Koran: are these documents a) fundamentally inspired by a destructive patriarchy, or are they b) clarion calls for peace and equality among all people, regardless of gender? (Or both a) and b), if that’s not a contradiction?)

One way of perhaps advancing this debate is to look at a nation whose religious landscape includes an Abrahamic faith and non-Abrahamic indigenous traditions. When women report violence in a religious context which is informed, but not monolithcally saturated, by Christianity, Judaism, or Islam, how are they treated? Would things be any different there, than in the West? If so, what would it teach us about how to stop rape, sexual assault, harassment, exploitation, trafficking, and so forth, in our own communities?

So we turn now to Papua New Guinea, located in the southwestern Pacific Ocean. Almost all citizens of Papua New Guinea self-identify as Christian, but the religion is often mixed with animist beliefs, including ancestor worship. It is one of the poorest countries on the planet per capita, and one of the most culturally diverse; some 800 languages are spoken there, and religious practice can differ profoundly from region to region. One thing, however, that many Papua New Guineans have in common, is a belief in witchcraft.

Earlier this week,  Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF; Doctors Without Borders) announced expanded women’s heath programs at the 9 Mile Clinic, in Port Moresby, the capital and largest city. The US Embassy there also mentioned earlier this year that Washington is helping fund education programs on gender-based violence in Port Moresby. So, what is happening in Papua New Guinea, precisely, to trigger this international reaction? Well, the statistics on family and sexual violence the country are so horrible that they’re simply impossible to ignore. Sources place the percentage of women who have experienced gender-based violence between 70 and 90%, depending, in part, upon the region. The Global Mail published an exposé earlier this year of how men in Papua New Guinea accuse women of witchcraft and sorcery, and then use it as a reason to carry out graphic human rights violations. One suspected witch was…

…first seized by a gang of merciless inquisitors looking for someone to blame for the recent deaths of two young men. They had stripped their quarry naked, blindfolded her, berated her with accusations and slashed her with bush knives (machetes). The “dock” for her trial was a rusty length of corrugated roofing, upon which she was displayed trussed and helpless. Photographs taken by a witness on a mobile phone show that the packed, inert public gallery encircling her included several uniformed police.

Port Moresby

Witchcraft is not something that most contemporary Westerners talk about much, or, I’d wager, believe in — although historically, American and European Christianity certainly has seen its share of the use of sorcery as a reason to demonize women. But let’s hold that thought; it may be the case that something similar to the Salem Witch Trials is still occurring, albeit in a subtler form, in the United States; we’ll discuss this in a moment.

In a potent, heart-breaking presentation, Ume Wainetti, the Papua New Guinean national coordinator of an organization fighting family and sexual violence, describes the ways in which women who report assault are accused of witchcraft and then often ostracized and tortured.

When a woman goes long-long (mad), people say it’s sorcery, it’s never the husband’s fault. And sometimes we Papua New Guinea women believe that when a husband hits us, it means that he loves us or is jealous. Often you will see even our highly educated women continue to live their lives through their husbands, with everything being about him. But tomorrow, if he walks out, he will leave her with nothing. Many times we make excuses for the violence that we see, blaming it on culture or alcohol and drugs.

The Global Mail postulates why men are behaving this way, quoting a Roman Catholic priest living in Papua New Guinea.

The resources-rich country is in the midst of a mining boom, but the wealth bypasses the vast majority. In their realities, some untouched by outside influence until only a couple of short-lived generations ago, enduring tradition widely resists the notion that natural causes, disease, accident or recklessness might be responsible for a death. Rather, bad magic is the certain culprit.

“When people die, especially men, people start asking ‘Who’s behind it?’, not ‘What’s behind it?’” says Dr Philip Gibbs, a longtime PNG resident, anthropologist, sorcery specialist and Catholic priest.

But the picture is much more complicated than just men avenging the deaths of loved ones.

Attacks are, as a general rule, the spontaneous act of a grieving family, inspired often by vengeance, and sometimes by fear that evil magic will be exercised again. But experts also concede there are caveats to every rule in PNG. One of the most ethnically diverse landscapes in the world, PNG is endlessly confounding to outsiders, and even as modern explorers strive to pin down aspects of the old world, it changes before them.

Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that economic factors also seem to be prompting humans en masse to violent behavior, despite the fact that they come from very different cultures.

…reports indicate tradition has in places morphed into something more malignant, sadistic and voyeuristic, stirred up by a potent brew of booze and drugs; the angry despair of lost youth; upheaval of the social order in the wake of rapid development and the super-charged resources enterprise; the arrival of cash currency and the jealousies it invites; rural desperation over broken roads; schools and health systems propelling women out of customary silence and men, struggling to find their place in this shifting landscape bitterly, often brutally, resentful.

“I have been in PNG since 1969,” says Sister Gaudentia [a nun and nurse working to help domestic violence victims]. “We always had sanguma [a local term for black magic], but not to the extreme, not like it is now.”

In other words, the mining boom has created intense income inequality and concomitant jealousy across these varied cultures. Most men in Papua New Guinea — almost always the sole economic provider to a household — are finding that as the country grows richer, they are not being included in the prosperity. At least one way of interpreting the rise of violence against women in Papua New Guinea is as a desperate reaction by young men to a chaotic displacement of traditional social structures by some volatile mix of economic Westernization and remnants of indigenous folk beliefs combined with the Christianity originally brought by missionaries.

Parliament Building, Port Moresby
Image: Steve Shattuck/CSIRO Australia

It’s probably impossible to sort out how much these claims of witchcraft are borne of animism and ancestor worship, or how they are (or are not) being inflamed by Christian conceptions of demons, Satan, and supernatural evil. It’s probably also not a question really worth asking; even if clerics and other religious professionals were to convince the population that black magic doesn’t exist, it’s very possible that these young men would find a different excuse to rape and assault the women of Papua New Guinea, and further punish those who report it. Anyway, these men probably would never be convinced in the first place; in 1971 even the Papua New Guinean federal government acknowledged the existence of sorcery (as well as its punishability). However, if the economic theory is right, then a responsibly carried-out industrialization of the country, which doesn’t leave behind large swaths of the population, might help reduce both the violence and the victim-blaming. But until then, NGOs and some religious missionaries, like Gaudentia, are doing what they can to help tend to the female victims, and educate the population about the toll that this violence is taking on them.

One key strategy is making sure that women’s clinics are locally accessible around the country, which has dense forests and remote villages. The clinical supervisor at the 9 Mile Clinic, Martha Pogo, explains that victims often can’t escape violence because they simply cannot get to a hospital.

“One lady who came in to the clinic had been beaten by her husband when she was two or three months pregnant,” says Martha. “Beaten, kicked and punched all over, including on the abdomen. She lives just a few houses away, but she couldn’t come in straight away because she had a miscarriage after the incident and she was bleeding. She was so weak, she was crawling. When she could stand up and take one step at a time she walked right into the room and was seen by me. She was grateful she could walk in and get help because she didn’t have the strength to walk to the bus stop.”

MSF is providing real, immediate, practical care to the women who come through its doors. The clinic offers five services: emergency medical care for wounds; psychological first aid; prophylaxis for HIV and medicine for other sexually transmitted infections (STIs); emergency contraception; and vaccination to prevent Hepatitis B and tetanus. The organization says that at a separate clinic, in the 2nd largest city, Lae, it has treated some 13,000 women since 2007. An impressive figure, but by far not enough; the total population of Papua New Guinea is about 7 million people.

Nonetheless, the 9 Mile Clinic, and the US government aid, provide reasons to be optimistic. They wouldn’t be possible, if word had not been getting out, slowly, about the severity of family and sexual violence in Papua New Guinea. Furthermore, MSF says that women in the country are beginning to rally together to help each other. It quotes one of its staff members in Port Moresby.

It makes me really happy to see these young nurses so passionate about something new to them and seeing that they’re the ones in charge of it. Hopefully this means that survivors of sexual violence will have access to the medical care they need for a long time to come.

And, Wainetti says, some men in the country are also rallying, to try to raise awareness among the entire male population about how destructive the violence is, and how to find more responsible ways of coping with trying economic circumstances.

Another thing that we urgently need is to establish services for men. For example, if a man cannot get an erection, he then blames his wife and beats her up. So we need men to also understand their own health problems. We have about 1,000 men now trained as advocates and we need to do more work to help to change men’s behaviour and to help them educate each other.

Women at a festival in Papua New Guinea
Image: Jurvetson

So this is a problem that can be attacked from three different directions: 1) improving economic conditions, particularly income inequality, 2) providing clinical care for victims and improving education and advocacy, and 3) tending to men, who, in their suffering, resort to violence.

Let’s go back now, and look at the problem of family and sexual abuse reporting in the United States and the rest of the Western world. What do survivors here say happens when they claim rape, assault, harassment, exploitation, and so forth, particularly in religious contexts? That they are not believed — that they are stigmatized — and that society more often than not disproportionately excuses the perpetrator (male or female) for his or her behavior. Why does this happen? What factors make Westerners unwilling to take family and sexual abuse survivors seriously? What role do our faith traditions play in that?

I don’t know the complete answer to these questions. However, what’s happening in Papua New Guinea may illustrate, as a more extreme case, some of the subtler dynamics that are occurring in the West. The model that we are seeing come out of Papua New Guinea goes something like this: economic insecurity leads to anger leads to violence leads to victim-blaming, in Papua New Guinea’s case, in the form of claims of witchcraft.

It could very well also be the case that in the United States and the industrialized West, some family and sexual abuse is the product of economic insecurity. Men (and women) who abuse may sometimes do so, in part, as a way of misdirecting anger borne of economic injustice. I’m not saying that’s the only psychological factor at play — because abuse occurs even in the wealthiest communities and most income-equalized nations — but the case of Papua New Guinea does seem to suggest that it is a factor. Furthermore, if abuse is widespread enough in an economically unstable community or sub-community (like a school or a church), then that group is less likely to hold abusers accountable, because that would threaten everyone’s economic standing. A sports coach, professor, or priest accused of sexual abuse is often protected by his or her institution, because if the perpetrator goes down, everyone goes down. Or, as a former bishop who dealt with sexual abuse cases (in a relatively responsible way) wrote to me, “nothing distressed me more—not only for the damage which inevitably resulted, but because misconduct on the part of any clergy seems to reflect upon us all.  On those occasions—which were thankfully rare in my experience—I felt almost personally betrayed.”

The Salem Witch Trials

And when we look back at the times when followers of Abrahamic faiths have resorted to accusations of witchcraft, we also see people who lived tough economic lives, either suffering from limited resources (the Puritan settlers) or insulting gaps in income inequality (medieval Europe), or both (parts of contemporary sub-Saharan Africa). In all these cases, of course, the faith is infused with some kind of non-Abrahamic, usually pre-Abrahamic concepts. But they were, or are, all more monolithically saturated by Christianity than modern Papua New Guinea. The Salem Witch Trials occurred during a time of socio-economic instability in colonial Masschusetts; the population was just a few years past the collapse of King James’ Dominion of New England. It’s in situations like that, among others, that disoriented men turn their anger toward women and accuse them of things like sorcery. We no longer see such intense, public forms of gender-based abuse — that is, such as witch trials. But abuse still exists on a grand scale, and our society still has major socio-economic inequality; and there may be a relationship between the two, albeit in a less dramatic form.

All of which prompts us to pose the following questions:

How important, or not, are the debates about the actual message of the Jewish and Christian Bible, and the Koran, as regards to abuse of women and silencing of victims? These documents can be, and have been, interpreted in a myriad of ways. Is it wiser to think that how we interpret them is going to be the product of our own soci0-economic situation? And even if we were to bring one of these debates to an end — that is, if we could conclude, once and for all, that our faith tradition is destructively patriarchal or a clarion call for peace — would that change people’s actual behavior?

Or is it better (or not) to focus that energy on the practical problem of building a society in which 1) the economic incentives both toward violence and victim-blaming are reduced, 2) victims have practical places they can go to for care, we spread awareness of the problem, and 3) possible perpetrators are dissuaded from abuse before they commit it? In the work of Médecins Sans Frontières, we see real healing happening in very desperate situations. If MSF is capable of battling the problem of abuse against women in Papua New Guinea, then can we do something similar in the US and the West? As many people have pointed out, this requires, without question, education — a lot more of it — and resources and justice given to victims — a lot more of it. But perhaps, also, does it provide one more reason that we make sure that everyone — men, women, and people who do not identify along binary gender lines — feel like they are getting fair and stable access to jobs, health care, housing — that is, all of our economic good fortune?

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