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New Network in Papua New Guinea Breaks Through Isolation to Support and Protect Women Human Rights Defenders at Risk

FRIDAY FILE: A new network of women human rights defenders (WHRDs) in Papua New Guinea (PNG) brings together women leaders in the Eastern Highlands, the country’s most isolated region. AWID spoke with Indai Sajor, Gender Advisor for the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) about the new network and what it hopes to achieve.

By Analía Penchaszadeh

When a women’s rights and peace activist from the Eastern Highlands of PNG was assaulted and received death threats, she was able to call on new friends for immediate support. The activist in question was accused of sorcery as a direct result of her activities to pursue justice for a woman who had been killed. She contacted the Highlands WHRD network, where one member offered her safety while others contacted the Urgent Action Fund to request support for her relocation to another province in order to escape the threats. As Indai Sajor tells this story, she concludes, “… without the network, she would be dead.”

Eastern Highlands

PNG is located in the southwestern region of the Pacific Ocean. The Eastern Highlands region is located in the island’s center, made up of densely forested mountains where very diverse indigenous communities live isolated from each other and from the outside world. There are more than 800 tribal groups in PNG, with nearly 20 different languages spoken in the Eastern Highlands alone.

Communities in the Eastern Highlands are separated from each other by forests and ravines, and by culture and language. These rural communities sustain their livelihoods from coffee production and subsistence farming, with little access to computers or the Internet. Cell phones, however, are common in households and serve as a lifeline for women who experience isolation.

The Eastern Highlands is an area with high incidence of tribal fighting, which has gone on for generations. These conflicts lead to killings, rapes, destruction of homes, and forced displacements of entire communities. Women have played an important role as peacemakers, bridging communities and confronting men who exacerbate violence. Oxfam New Zealand, which is supporting the new WHRD Network, works with KUP Women for Peace to end tribal fighting in the Highlands region. Women for Peace and other WHRDs have faced threats and attacks as a backlash for their peace efforts.

Tribal conflict and sorcery

A principal source of tribal conflict in the region is accusations of sorcery. As discussed in the OHCHR report on Armed Tribal Conflict and Sorcery in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea, “when a death, sickness or an accident occurs, it is common for community members to explain it as having been caused by the use of sorcery.” The OHCHR report cites the PNG police statistics that women are six times more likely to be accused of sorcery than men.

When people are accused of sorcery, they are brutally attacked and often killed. According to the OHCHR report, victims “are subjected to cruel and inhuman treatment like beatings with barbed wire, having their bones broken, burning with red hot metal, rape, suspending people over fire, cutting off body parts, amputation of limbs and dragging victims behind moving vehicles. Among the murders reported were those victims that had been buried alive, beheaded, choked to death, thrown over cliffs into rivers or caves, starved, axed, electrocuted, suffocated with smoke, forced to drink petrol, stoned or shot.”

Support for women human rights defenders

WHRDs work to convince community members to use the justice system – whether a formal court or a traditional justice system – for addressing accusations of sorcery, as an alternative to violence. WHRDs who denounce sorcery-related violence are themselves accused of sorcery and risk being attacked and killed. There are few statistics on violence against WHRDs because many of these attacks are not reported and therefore not documented. An Amnesty International Report states that in the highland provinces of PNG, “more than 50 reported cases of sorcery-related deaths occurred in 2008 alone, and local authorities believe that many more murders may have gone unreported.” Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have raised concerns about sorcery- related killings of women since 2009.

It is within this context that the “Highland Women’s Human Rights Movement Network” was launched in March 2011. It began with a training session organized by OHCHR with 24 representatives from women’s organizations who came together from seven provinces in the region. Participants explored WHRD-centered approaches to risk assessment, protection measures, and rapid response. They learned about information gathering and documentation, engaging with UN human rights mechanisms, and conforming national legislative frameworks with international standards.

The new network hopes to end the isolation of WHRDs and create a protection system for women who are at risk for their peacemaking work. They are coordinating documentation of cases of human rights violations, conducting advocacy activities to promote women’s rights, and creating communications mechanisms to support and protect each other in emergencies. The Oxfam PNG Highlands office is providing secretariat support, helping the network members break through communication barriers.

A key priority for the network is to create protection and support mechanisms for WHRDs at risk. Network members use their cell phones to alert others of urgent situations, and they are able to tap into the resources of Oxfam and the OHCHR to deal with emergencies. They are also developing a list of service providers to enable other WHRDs in the Highlands to access resources.

Collecting and presenting reliable data on human rights violations was identified as important to be able to jointly and effectively advocate on human rights issues with regional and international mechanisms. As a result, WHRDs who participated in the initial training are now documenting such cases, including killings for accusations of sorcery and armed tribal conflict.

The network is also planning a Roadshow later in the year to raise awareness about women’s human rights and issues of sexual violence. The Roadshow will be part of the international 16 Days of Activism campaign and will involve activities in each of the East Highlands provinces. An important component of the Roadshow is to highlight the 2012 PNG National Elections with the goal of preventing violence during the election season and promoting women’s rights to vote and to run for office.

What Next

The OHCHR has sponsored similar trainings for WHRDs in other areas of PNG (Bougainville) and in other countries in the Pacific (Vanuatu), which have also resulted in WHRD networks. As these networks develop and build capacity, they will be able to connect with each other and have a more powerful voice at the international level. In this way, the WHRDs in these areas will be able to break through their isolation, becoming more effective in their important human rights work and protecting themselves from the violence that they face.