All photos by Vlad Sokhin.

In a new Lowy Institute Analysis published today, Jo Chandler presents a devastating picture of the endemic violence against women in Papua New Guinea and the role Australia can play in supporting local initiatives to address the problem. Below, Jo reflects on how remote justice is for many women. 

Over the past six years I've made numerous trips to PNG, usually intensive excursions but too quick (as media paradigms tend to dictate) and likely too ambitious, ranging across health and education and into politics, resources development and corruption. Violence was rarely the story I went looking for, but it was inevitably the one I found.

The first instinct of a journalist trying to communicate a crisis is to quantify it — to bundle it up in statistics. But the data on violence in PNG is scarce, and it is inevitably scrubbed clean of identity and humanity. The reality, by contrast, is raw, overwhelming, unfathomable, complex.

So you might describe the scores of walking wounded waiting for triage outside highlands hospitals every morning, oftentimes the bashed and basher sitting together, waiting their turn. Or you might try to capture the vulnerability of girls and women when they venture out of home, and how it shackles their movements and their prospects in city and village alike. Yet these narratives fall short when they depict PNG women as merely helpless and scared. They are also tough, funny, resourceful, cunning, resilient.

But perhaps the trickiest thing to communicate is just how formidable the landscape is for women wanting access to justice. So many obstacles. The remoteness. The poverty of resources, of cash. The lack of roads, personnel, and vehicles to respond to emergencies. The shortcomings of police capacity and culture. The brutality, often inspired by hard-wired notions of payback and supercharged by modern blights of bitterness and booze. The failure of agents of the state to honour their ethics and their obligations, and to uphold the law.

These were issues I was starting to poke around last October when I made the first of a few visits to East Sepik. I stopped over in Wewak on my way to Maprik, in the hinterland, hitching a ride with an Oxfam team visiting their local partner agency. The Nana Kundi Crisis Centre is one of a mere handful of women's refuges sprinkled across the country.

As it happened, the hotel in Wewak was overrun with Papua New Guinean and Australian officials and dignitaries all similarly preoccupied with questions of justice. They were en route to the opening of a community law and justice office in Lumi, West Sepik. Among them was Kerenga Kua, one of PNG's most distinguished lawyers before entering politics and, at that time, serving as Attorney-General and Minister for Justice. (In June this year, he was abruptly sacked by the Prime Minister.)

Kua settled down in the warm evening with myself and photographer Vlad Sokhin (his images above). In Australia, interviewing politicians is an endurance test of spin and obfuscation. In PNG, it is most commonly about Big Man bluster and posturing. In both contexts many words are spoken but little is said. This interview proved to be something else.

What I want to understand, I say, is why terrible crimes continue to be committed with such impunity. 'We have a formidable problem,' says Kua.

We have a very big land area and our population is scattered through remote communities. It would not be a problem if the culture in the community reacts positively to the established legal system. But the culture that prevails at the moment...is to look after your own. So if one of your own offends against the law, you protect him. That is what the community does, they protect perpetrators. So a victim (of violence) is not, in the first case, able to report the matter and mobilise the witnesses and bring the offender to account unless that victim has a stronger network of support (than her attacker). Then that can be used to force the issue to the proper legal system.

Many disputes never get past the informal mechanisms exercised by clans, families, and tribes outside established systems. 'If you hang around Port Moresby on the weekends you will see a lot of gatherings under the rain trees, in the shade,' he explained. 'Those are informal dispute resolution systems in progress. They don't register it in the courthouse.' Violent crimes are dealt with under the trees because people don't trust the government to support both the offender and the victim.

People have set up their own default system, so the government systems have become irrelevant, more or less. You see it at a rural level as well. You might demand that the victim and her witnesses and everybody march to the police station and lay the report and get the offender charged. But in the background the offender and their people are busy attacking the victim and her supporters and witnesses yet again.

Inevitably the winners are those with the biggest gang of wantoks (relatives), and so it will remain, says Kua, until such time as the Government secures trust and authority.

The next step up the legal ladder is the village court, which is recognised as part of the formal sector and empowered to resolve disputes by reference to customary law and practices. Village court magistrates are not supposed to deal with serious criminal matters like rape and assault, but 'of necessity they deal with it, to bring about a resolution, to bring about peace to that particular segment of the community.'

But there is little capacity for deterrence against serious crime within the 'settlements of convenience' delivered at village level. The preferred government strategy, Kua says, is to get the matters to police, charges laid, committal in the district court and, where there is a case, a full trial in the National Court.

Ultimately the solution is to 'send a more powerful message to the men — that you cannot commit, let's say, a violent sexual offence against a woman, and then you bury it at the village level, without allowing it to go through the proper court system.'

That all requires building infrastructure and capacity (courts, skills, systems, personnel) 'and that is what we are doing,' says Kua. But it is a long haul 'and as a nation our issues are many.' Justice competes against a range of other critical priorities, including transport, health, and roads.

Meanwhile his strategy is to signal the seriousness of the issue by imposing the death penalty, which remains on the books in PNG, though it has not been used since 1957. Prime Minister Peter O'Neill moved soon after taking power to reactivate it and Kua has dispatched teams overseas to investigate lethal injection. It is coming, he says.

'For want of a better solution, in desperation, when you have this kind of impunity existing and growing in a society, we are forced to a corner, where we resort to things like the death penalty for rape, for aggravated rape.' In the PNG context 'fire has to be met with fire. You use fire sometimes to kill off bigger fires elsewhere.'

We can't...allow a level of impasse and status quo to continue to permeate to the detriment of our women folk, our young girls, our vulnerable population. We have to do something about it. I hope you don't come and take offence to that. Because the European Union (and the United Nations) are openly coming out to us and saying 'listen you can't have death penalty, you can't have corporal punishment'. And I'm thinking 'where do they come from?...What solutions do they have for our issues?' (We have) no taxpayer base, very limited financial resources, (we're) trying to deal with all the human issues of life and falling short of course, as one would expect.

Kua tells me he is proud to be the Attorney-General who oversaw the enactment of family protection legislation (more than 20 years in the making) which makes it easier for victims to get interim protection orders at the grassroots village level, defines a wider range of offences, and also empowers and directs police action.

'Our heart has always been with our womenfolk, for the majority of us,' Kua says. 'We are committed to doing everything we reasonably can within the confines of the resources available to us. That is the commitment we can give them.'

Today Kerenga Kua is gone from office, another maelstrom consumes the energies of the power players, and it is business as usual in far-flung village courts and under the rain trees of Port Moresby.