Danger And Determination In Papua New Guinea
FRIDAY FILE: Women in Papua New Guinea’s Simbu province are fighting to end endemic violence and invoking human rights to bring instigators to justice.
By Masum Momaya
Endemic Fighting in Papua New Guinea
These days, countries that are affected by natural disasters often receive abundant coverage and shows of support while those with ongoing or intermittent violence and conflict are left by the wayside, with audiences ignorant of or fatigued by their plight. Such is the case of Papua New Guinea, a country of seven million people in the Pacific that has experienced inter-tribal warfare for decades, intensified by an influx of sophisticated arms and weapons. Meanwhile, the country’s government and police forces have not been able to do much to ensure the security of its people.
Fighting amongst tribes in Papua New Guinea (PNG) is endemic, with disputes over land, natural resources, women, religious beliefs and perceived and real insults spawning violence. Most traditional societies are located in rural areas; only 18% of PNG’s population lives in its major cities. The country has at least 850 tribal societies, many of which make a living off the land as farmers and are poor. Unemployment is as high as 80% in some places. Income has also been generated from mining, and the rights to the outputs of mines are often a cause of fights.
In April of 2009, nine years of peace in the highlands of the Simbu province in PNG came to an end with a fight among thirteen tribes over claims to a sand gravel quarry. During the calm near-decade, a large number of guns were brought into the area, making this most recent outbreak of violence more deadly than ever. Also, hard-fought efforts to keep the peace by building infrastructure, creating jobs and building inter-tribal relations were erased in a matter of months through pillaging and destruction.
Peace Brokered by Women Crumbles
Women’s rights advocate Mary Kini, who is from the Simbu Valley, has worked in solidarity since 1999 with women from other tribes in the province through Kup Women for Peace (KWP) with the aim of Downim heavy belong all mama (reducing the sorrow of the mothers). Kini and other women from ‘enemy’ tribes in Kup, a sub-district of 18,000 people in the Simbu province, have risked being killed by working together – shunned for people from warring tribes - to end cycles of violence, including ensuring free, fair and non-violent elections in parts of the province.
With support of women throughout Kup sub-district, Kini and her colleagues had brokered unprecedented peace amongst tribes – until April 2009, when a young man from one tribe walked through a sand gravel quarry claimed by another tribe. Battles ensued.
According to the Women’s Human Rights Defenders International Coalition, “because of their work, the women [of KWP] have become targets of aggression. People have been killed; hundreds of houses burnt to the ground; food gardens and coffee trees have been destroyed; pigs killed; the KWP centre, schools and health centres wrecked, and large numbers of guns have been brought into the area. Most people have fled and are living in tents and temporary shelters in the mountains or along the Wahgi River.”
The federal government has long declared Kup a fighting zone. Police forces were present intermittently in the province but did not make arrests or curb the violence.
Kini, who spoke with AWID recently while regrouping and seeking assistance and resources in Port Moresby (PNG’s capital), said that many women have been raped and that numerous women were shot in the battlefields while trying to gather food for their families. Women and girls are targets in the fighting, often for vengeance and to provoke and shame the enemy.
The rapes and murders of women in conflict are part of continuum of violence against women, another endemic problem in the province. Oxfam New Zealand has documented that women there are also often the targets of witch-hunts – accused of sorcery when someone dies or falls ill or dies and subject to torture. Also, domestic violence is prevalent too but often dismissed as acceptable if a bride price has been paid, cementing the perception that men ‘own’ their wives.
Mechanisms for Justice
Today, even though the violence has abated a bit over the last two months, gun-totting people still strike fear in most of residents, many of which have fled the area in search of safety. Schools and hospitals are closed, and there is nowhere to treat the wounded.
Kini and her KWP colleagues are working with their allies at Oxfam International, the Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre and the UNDP along with the sole female member of PNG’s parliament, Dame Carol Kidu, to put together and invoke human rights legal mechanisms and UN Resolution 1325 to bring instigators to justice. She explained that fighting amongst tribes has become so normal that people think it is an acceptable way of solving disputes. Moreover, she says, since instigators walk away without any punishment for the murders, rapes, property damage, food pillaging, economic hardship, displacement and homelessness they have caused, they are more than likely to do it again.
Kini’s KWP sister, Agnes Sil, is calling for an investigation into why police forces have not arrested anyone for the crimes. She explains that police are often related to instigators and frequently do nothing even though they are present and witnessing the atrocities. “Each police person is often someone’s in-law or cousin by marriage,” Sil says. “When the police do nothing, people take matters into their own hands,” she continues. Sil also argues that tribal leaders are neglecting their responsibilities explaining, “they are supposed to understand and explain issues like ownership of sand gravel quarries to their people and not instigate them to fight.”
Moreover, Kini explains that most leaders in the national government, including ministers and members of parliament, are not doing anything about this situation and are not representing or assisting the people they were elected or appointed to serve. She says, “they have a lot of power, they exercise control at their own will and they are not accountable.”
Currently, Oxfam New Zealand is supporting the women of KWP to relocate their operations to the nearby city of Kerowagi, where they will offer services for women victims of conflict and violence. However, they still need immediate relief funding to enable the staff and volunteers to pay for school fees and find food and shelter while they are unable to return to their homes. KWP is also working with Oxfam to conduct a cost-benefit analysis of the violence and hope to convene a conference bringing together human rights advocates from all over PNG and neighboring countries.
To find out about how you can support Kup Women for Peace, please click here.
To read more about how the influx of arms and weapons are elevating conflicts and endangering women, click here.
The author would like to thank Tara Chetty of the Women Human Rights Defenders International Coalition, Edwina Kotoisuva from the Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre and Naeemah Khan from the Fiji Women’s Rights Movement for their support with this article.
 ‘Tribe’ and ‘tribal’ were used by interviewees from Kup Women for Peace when communicating with the author in English and therefore used in this article. To learn about the problematic uses of 'tribe' and 'tribal' in reporting, please see analysis from the Committee of Concerned Journalists and Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting.
Note: This article is part of the AWID’s weekly Friday File series, exploring important issues and events from a women’s rights perspective. To subscribe to the weekly Friday File newsletter, click here.