By Jonathan Pryke, Research Fellow and Director of the Aus-PNG Network in the Lowy Institute's Melanesia Program, and Kath Taplin, Senior Development Manager for Femili PNG

Rates of gender-based violence in Papua New Guinea (and in the Pacific Islands region more broadly) are among the highest in the world. Estimates from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) suggest that 70% of women in PNG experience some degree of physical or sexual assault in their lifetime. The issue hit international headlines again this year with MSF delivering a major report on the crisis as it wrapped up its engagement in PNG after almost 25 years of operations. Even more hard-hitting than these statistics are the images in Vlad Sokhin's photography book Crying Meri.

However, less is heard about the important work being done in all sectors of Papua New Guinea toward addressing this pervasive issue. Solutions are desperately required throughout the Pacific Islands region, but there are new approaches warranting broader attention both within and outside of Papua New Guinea.

The Lowy Institute, in partnership with the Development Policy Centre, recently hosted events in Canberra and Sydney to hear from exceptional Papua New Guinean leaders in government, civil society and the private sector. This article attempts to summarise some of the work being done, making specific reference to the guests from our events.

Violence against women is underpinned by a complex interplay of individual, relationship, community and societal factors, not all of which are easy to pinpoint, but at its core it is an exertion of power and control that maintains women's inequality. A sustained and coordinated national response is required, and this starts with the PNG government.

The Department for Community Development and Religion takes a lead role in this regard, and is developing the first national strategy to address gender-based violence in PNG. Anna Solomon, the Secretary of the Department, assured audience members at the events that this strategy (which will help focus and guide government) is in its final stages of development after a lengthy consultation process.

PNG's Family Protection Act and child protection laws were also discussed, as they form part of the developing legal framework necessary to start effectively addressing violence. Unfortunately, PNG's ongoing fiscal challenges raise the question of whether the resources the government will allocate to new initiatives and to bolster existing work will be sufficient. Comprehensive strategy and laws, however, are critical to demonstrate national commitment on an issue challenging national development, help concentrate domestic efforts and coordinate international assistance. The government also has the luxury of being the largest employer in PNG's formal economy, and where it can't lead with cash it can certainly lead by example (such as through implementing and enforcing stringent employment and recruitment standards). 

Momentum in the private sector is starting to build as employers grasp that there is not only a moral justification for serious action, but also an economic one. At our events we heard from Oil Search Foundation CEO Kymberley Kepore (Oil Search recently committed over US$50 million to the Foundation for the years 2016-2020) on why gender has become a cornerstone of the Foundation's work and how investing in this space is more than just corporate social responsibility for Oil Search.

We also heard from Kevin Byrne, Deputy Chair of the PNG Business Coalition for Women (BCFW), a recently established group of companies and corporate leaders, on his work to promote business and employment opportunities for women. BCFW is also actively trying to address violence in the workplace (such through developing model family and sexual violence policies being taken up by companies who want to support their employees who are suffering violence). The BCFW is an example of how the private sector is starting to coalesce and unify around this critical issue. 

Another instance of business recognising the importance of both empowering women and addressing the barriers and violence they face was the recent Aus-PNG Business Forum in Cairns. There was an address from KTF Archer Leadership Scholar Stephannie Kirriwom, an awe-inspiring Henry Kila Memorial Address from Dr Barry Kirby on the topic of addressing maternal health challenges and breakout sessions on addressing violence against women in the workplace. The leadership and resources PNG's private sector wields will be critical in developing much more concerted and integrated private sector, government and NGO responses over time. 

While leadership, raised awareness, resources and coordination are all parts of the puzzle, delivering services and support to survivors of sexual and family violence is particularly vital. With limited resources and an already stretched health budget, front line workers do a valiant job of providing treatment to adult and child survivors. However, there are insufficient examples of integrated services for survivors in PNG, which is where Femili PNG (which operates in PNG's second-largest city of Lae) comes in. Operations Manager Denga Ilave discussed how the organisation (supported by DFAT, along with Oxfam and private sector and philanthropic donations), works with provincial government, police, courts, hospitals and the private sector to provide daily assistance to adults and children affected by family and sexual violence. Femili PNG staff provide access to services for hundreds of women and children, including medical treatment, counselling, legal assistance, safe houses and (when necessary) relocation assistance, including business start-up kits and other support to assist women's economic independence. You can read more Denga and Femili PNG's work at ABC

Another area discussed at our panel events, and which repeatedly came up in conversation, is how to address these challenges in rural communities, where the majority of PNG's nearly eight million people live. This is where existing networks (critically wantok groups and churches) need to be supported, involved and utilised to help this pressure for action reach the grassroots level. 

There is some cause for optimism in seeing every sector take action, but it will take a redoubling of efforts to stitch together these pockets of momentum into a movement that can cause real change in the lives of many. And that change certainly won't happen without men's involvement. Ultimately violence against women isn't just a women's issue; it is the action of men, and gender inequality, we must address. But when looking around the room at both events, something was missing: sufficient men. In both crowds only around 20% of attendees were male.

For a country where, according to the 2016 Lowy Institute Poll, 79% of Australians feel that domestic violence is a very important issue facing Australia (more so than the economy or terrorism), this turnout was embarrassing. But it is also an important reminder that we need to intensify our efforts both at home and in our region to bring men to the table, because just as it will take all sectors working together to see change, it will also take all people. 

Photo: Getty Images/Hadi Zaher