Epidemic of family violence in PNG requires a coordinated response

Sayeed Aleemullah Shah, Tari project co-ordinator for Medecins Sans Frontieres, writes about the family violence crisis in PNG and the aims of the recent conference in Port Moresby.

During my first week in Tari, in the beautiful central highlands of Papua New Guinea, I came face to face with the terrible consequences of what is labelled ”family violence”. I was at a clinic when the guard called over the radio for a stretcher. I grabbed one and went to the gate.

There, a young woman lay in the back of a ute, blood pooling in the tray, her clothes slashed open, soaked with it.

© Kate Geraghty/Fairfax

We shifted the lady to the stretcher and moved her to the emergency room where medical staff started treating her. They called the surgeon and requested the patient’s friend – an elderly lady – to wait outside the emergency room, where she told us what had happened. I asked one of the guards to translate. The injured woman had been beaten by her husband but did not know why.

On seeing my surprise our guard interrupted to assure me this is a daily occurrence in Tari.

This week in Port Moresby a small group will gather in an attempt to deal with this problem. About 150 people, including representatives of the medical, legal and social-protection services, are coming together to agree on a new plan to respond to family and sexual violence in PNG.

The Family and Sexual Violence Action Committee, a local organisation, has convened the event together with Medecins Sans Frontieres and the PNG National Department of Health.

All of us faced with this challenge have pinned our hopes on this small group finding better ways of meeting the needs of people affected by the epidemic of family violence.

Before joining Medecins Sans Frontieres in 2004, I worked as a reporter and interpreter for a globally renowned newspaper, covering the ”War On Terror” after the events of September 11, 2001, in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Being from Balochistan, Pakistan, where there is also a strong tribal system, I thought I would be able to relate to the culture in Tari.

But despite my diverse experiences I was in for a shock. Never before have I seen the prevalence and relentlessness of violence that occurs in PNG.

This is not simply a problem in the Highlands. Across PNG every week Medecins Sans Frontieres treats dozens of survivors of family and sexual violence, in just a few hospitals and health centres. Frequently we treat survivors, overwhelmingly women and children, who have been chopped with bush knives (sword-like machetes), burnt or suffered other ruthless punishment from family members.

Although we have treated more than 18,000 survivors of family and sexual violence across the country since 2007, our patients represent a fraction of those affected.

Since 2007 we have seen that by providing good quality medical treatment, more survivors are motivated to seek help, and that survivors of sexual violence increasingly present within the crucial 72 hours after their assault. This showed us that through the experience of treatment, our patients could begin to understand this violence has serious medical consequences and is unacceptable.

After more than five years of work in the city of Lae, Medecins Sans Frontieres this year finalised its support and handed over daily management to Angau Memorial General Hospital, which continues to provide one of the best medical services in PNG to survivors of family and sexual violence. However, this is just one location and much remains to be done.

Here in the mountains of Tari, resources are limited. Medecins Sans Frontieres continues to fill a significant gap supporting the hospital. Without our support, even basic emergency medicine and trauma surgery would be unavailable to patients.

There is a desperate need for the health system’s resources to be better targeted in many more locations. The PNG government, NGOs and key partners such as the Australian government all have roles to play in ensuring facilities are staffed by trained personnel and linked to well-functioning protection and justice services.

These services are critical to offering survivors tangible relief from their suffering, and a healthy, safe way forward.

This is what the meeting in Port Moresby aims to achieve. The PNG government has a huge responsibility, but cannot do this alone. Everyone involved in the medical, legal and social services needs to step up to ensure survivors receive the services and treatment they need. We sincerely hope they will.

First published in the Sydney Morning Herald

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