BRISBANE - On Friday 17 November a six year old Papua New Guinean child was tortured, sustaining wounds and burns all over her body. This child is the daughter of Leniata Kepari.
In 2013, Leniata was burned to death by a mob in the Highlands after she was accused of practicing witchcraft and sorcery.
The mob that burned Leniata to death has never been charged for her murder.
Her death caused international exposure and a global uproar. Women across the Pacific and around the world came together to fight for gender equality and protest against gender based violence.
Leniata’s death introduced the new term ‘accusation based violence’ in PNG.
The country mourned her death.
There were marches and campaigns around the world. We had had enough and we shouted “no more”!
And in true Melanesian spirit we sobbed and we wept. We lit candles and had 24 hour vigils to commemorate a woman that no-one knew.
She was our sister, our mother, our daughter. She was our wife our neighbour and our friend. So we shed tears genuine tears. Leniata’s death was mourned. And we also mourned another death - the death of moral values, principles and ideals.
This ignited a passion to make change. There were new policies, programs and initiatives to protecting the women and children of Papua New Guinea. But despite attempts to make progress, all our hard work seemed meaningless on 17 November 2017.
The horrendous abuse inflicted on this small child is unspeakable.
I sat in disbelief for almost a week trying to figure out how this could have been.
How did we let this happen?
I say “we” and I say “ours” because it is our duty of care and our responsibility as a group of citizens and countrymen and women to ensure that the next generation is protected. We cried and marched for this child’s mother. We as a nation made public oaths to end the violence.
The irony is chilling that three years after her mother’s death, this six year old child has been blamed for witchcraft and sorcery. She was accused of inheriting her mother’s sanguma powers.
Thankfully Leniata’s daughter survived but Justice is yet to be served.
This little girl’s name and her face have been protected. So she has been officially nicknamed ‘Justice’. There is hope for Justice.
The nation rose up this week. Prime minister Peter O’Neil took a stand in condemning this atrocious act and said he is committed to putting an end to this atrocity.
The unfortunate reality is that yes this happened, yes it happened in our backyard, and yes there are individuals who believe that burning a woman at a stake or torturing a child is acceptable.
But this is a very, very small group of people who sadly have made a huge impact on how the rest of the world sees us.
The majority of Papua New Guineans do not accept this behaviour nor do we condone these acts. This is not the Papua New Guinean way.
Do we have a problem with gender based violence? Yes. But so does the rest of the world.
There is an issue with gender based violence throughout the Pacific. But before we address the faults of our neighbours, we need to fix the problem at home.
This issue is prevalent because of our inaction and lack of education, policies and awareness. This is changing. However the change is a slow, frustrating process. I suppose slow change is better than no change. But at what cost? How many torturous acts are unreported?
Will recent events hopefully reignite a passion for change? One can only hope.
We hope for change, we pray for change and we cry for change.
One group at the forefront of change is the Papua New Guinea Tribal Foundation, which together with Lutheran missionary Anton Lutz rescued Justice from her attackers.
Justice is now safe and recovering. Individuals like Anton Lutz and organisations like the Tribal Foundation work tirelessly and passionately to serve communities in some of the country’s most remote locations.
They have set up centres throughout the nation. They commit their lives to our people. They are Justice’s saving grace. If they had not been on the ground and present Justice could have faced the same fate as her mother.
Now Justice is in a safe place and receiving ongoing care thanks to Papua New Guinea Tribal Foundation and Anton Lutz.
The time and resources they invest into the people of PNG is total. They are good, authentic people who dedicate their lives to serving our communities. They are to be commended for their unconditional support and presence.
In 2016, the PNG Tribal Foundation released a short film entitled Senisim Pasin (Change Your Ways) Senisim Pasin advocates gender equality, economic empowerment and fighting the good fight to end gender based violence throughout PNG.
Too many critics scrutinise organisations that enter our country to help Papua New Guineans. The truth is that - without organisations like PNG Tribal Foundation, without individuals who sacrifice their lives to live in harsh conditions thousands of miles away from home in the name of hope, kindness, compassion and change - there would be no aid posts, medical centres, safe houses, training facilities and basic amenities provided at a grassroots level.
These groups move mountains and are dedicated to positive change.
We Papua New Guineans need to be equally dedicated and committed to change. Our drums need to be heard they need to be louder.
We need to collaborate and work together instead of against each other. And we need to be consistent if we want real change.
There are so many catch phrases and slogans for change in PNG. And that’s OK but a slogan is just words and words are meaningless without effective action.
We the people both at home and abroad need to pick up our game. Raise the bar. All our attempts to raise awareness on the internet mean nothing if we don’t take the resources and the message beyond the confines of our own home.
Let’s defend the weak. Let’s shine a light in the darkness.
You want to see an end to gender based violence and accusation based violence?
Then end it!
You end it by speaking up, by calling out the perpetrators, by using your voice and by raising awareness within your family, your clan, your tribe and region.
You end it by intervening when a woman is being vilified, victimised and scrutinised for being a woman. You end it by fostering a culture that makes an individual feel safe and secure.
On 8 March 1965, Martin Luther King Jr spoke from his pulpit about courage and he spoke about those who recognise that there is something wrong or witness a wrongful act being committed but fail to act.
“A man dies when he refuses to stand up for which is right. A man dies when he refuses to stand up for justice. A man dies when he refuses to take a stand for that which is true.”
We need to act.
Failing to act is costing lives. Failing to act is killing our humanity. Failing to act is killing our integrity. Failing to act is killing our morality.