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Coming to terms with violence in PNG


Shot VIOLENCE IN PNG is a complex issue with its roots in the culture and traditions of its peoples.

PNG was not in any sense unified until colonisation by the Germans, British and Australians not much over 100 years ago. Even then the PNG people didn't conceive themselves as belonging to a 'country'. 

Prior to colonisation people lived in tribal and clan groups with a series of relationships with their neighbours and those from further away for such things as trade, customary exchanges, family relationships and the like.

In general people did not travel much beyond their language group's lands. Relationships between rival tribal or ethnic groups were therefore more like international diplomacy rather than internal disputes - and had more in common with the relations between ancient Greek city states than European models of internal policing.

Western notions of national sovereignty and national civic society were relatively recent introductions. Inter-tribal negotiations and conflict were traditionally dealt with via a sophisticated series of exchanges, challenges, compensation payments and as a last resort, violence.

But this was carried out within a broad context of generally-accepted conventions (think western "rules of war").

This changed with colonisation and the introduction of western ideas, influences and above all modern weapons. A generation or to ago tribal conflicts would have been fought with bows and arrows, clubs and spears. Now you will find M16's, automatic pistols, fearsome machetes and even grenades. So the potential for serious injury and death has magnified drastically.

Transfer this to a domestic situation and you will have some horrific incidents. Bride price traditions undoubtedly play a role in this as well. Some PNG islands have a matrilinear social structure and do not have a bride price tradition. Levels of domestic violence in these areas are noticeably lower than on the mainland where most of PNG society is patrilinear and bride price is common.

We might think a man is seen as "buying" a wife via bride price. However this is a simplistic view as bride price also involves a complex series of exchanges between families, and corresponding obligations and responsibilities which are easily unbalanced by Western attitudes and mores.

Unfortunately this broader cultural context has been diluted through Western influences, where young people might form their attitudes as much by watching US soap operas on TV than listening to their elders.

As NCD metropolitan police commander, Supt Fred Yakasa, said at a recent United Nations Say No to Violence meeting, "Laws regarding domestic issues such as violence against women and marital rape exist but are never enforced due to the perception that such issues should remain within the parameters of the family...

“Under traditional customs, violence against ones spouse or child was seen as a disciplinary and corrective measure within the family... views were passed on for generations and were fuelled by the bride price practice, which makes men to think that a woman was now their property to do with as they pleased."

A further complication is widespread belief in sorcery as an explanation for anything unfortunate that might happen - such as a car accident or an unexpected death through cancer.

A natural reaction is to use violent reprisals against the alleged "sorcerers", so there are many terrible cases of violence, torture and murder as a result of such accusations. Just check the two national newspapers for regular accounts of this.

What is the solution? Only through education can deeply held beliefs be challenged and changed. Only by providing medical, counselling and support services like Médecins Sans Frontières and various church groups are doing can women and children be helped, and only by providing shelters can they be protected.

The PNG Government must also take on more responsibility for changing attitudes and providing better policing, health and social support. And the Australian government must bear some responsibility for introducing the catalysts that have amplified violence and changed the delicate balance of traditional social checks and balances.


Some references:

1.      Amnesty International, Papua New Guinea: Violence Against Women: Not Inevitable, Never Acceptable! http://asiapacific.amnesty.org/library/pdf/ASA340022006ENGLISH/$File/ASA3400206.pdf

2.      In Papua New Guinea, 67% of wives had been beaten by their husbands. (PNG Law Reform Commission, 1992), and 60% of men reported having participated in lainap (gang rape) at least once. (PNG Institute of Medical Research 1994)

3.      The National - http://www.thenational.com.pg

4.      Post-Courier - http://www.postcourier.com.pg

Photo: Taken in Banz during a conflict between Peter’s wife's family and the police over removal of building materials from a long-abandoned building. The young man has been shot with an M16


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Reginald Renagi

A good article by Peter and I agree with his last two paragraphs. Over time, education will go a long way for people in PNG, especially in rural communities, to change their attitudes towards others.

Barbara Short

Thank you Peter for this excellent article. I'm an Australian who worked in education in PNG for 13 years in the 1970-80s. During my time there I learnt much about all these things that you have explained so well.

As a Christian I believe the sorcery problem can be overcome through Christian faith and I know Christian love can solve a lot of the other problems. But when people like myself try to offer advice I know we must remember that the country still has a long way to go in changing attitudes and beliefs.

I remember the very moving dance drama called "This Man" by Francis Bogutu, from the Solomon Islands, which depicts the mental turmoil experienced by men as they search for their own identities in a changing society with conflicting cultures.

I agree with you that education has an important role to play to change deeply held beliefs that are causing so many of these problems.

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