Pacific Islands: beset by gender violence, but why?

The Pacific Islands may be well-known as an idyllic tourist destination, but gendered violence remains a chronic issue for Island women. AAP/Diana Plater

Allegations of sorcery-related abuse in Papua New Guinea have had increased prominence in recent days. They involve the alleged torture of six women and one man with hot irons as part of an Easter “sacrifice” in the Southern Highlands, as well as reports on Tuesday of the public beheading of a woman accused of sorcery in Bougainville.

These come in the wake of the violent death of a young Mt Hagen woman in Papua New Guinea’s Northern Highlands, which became the subject of international media attention in early February.

Kepari Leniata, a 20 year old mother of an eight month old baby, was tortured and eventually burnt alive before a crowd of onlookers. Her charred remains were left smouldering on a city rubbish dump. Leniata was the victim of gang-led, vigilante violence. She was murdered in supposed revenge for her alleged use of sorcery against a six year old boy whose death occurred, unexpectedly, some days before.

A few days later, The Australian’s Rowan Callick described Leniata’s murder as a product of Papua New Guinea’s failed education system and its programs of economic development. Callick’s suggestion was that such crimes are born of pre-modern systems of belief, and occur as a kind of cultural excess.

But what of the power imbalances - economic and political - that compound Pacific Island women’s exposure to such extreme, and other more common, forms of gendered violence? Perhaps it is the gendered nature of development in the region that is the source of this epidemic rather than its remedy.

This perspective on women’s insecurity is supported by recent studies of sorcery-related deaths in the region. These show that accusations of sorcery are more likely to be levelled against those at the bottom of the social, tribal or clan hierarchy. In other words, they are certainly more likely to target women, but particularly those women who exist in marginal circumstances: the destitute, elderly, widowed, disabled, “dishonoured” or those who “marry-in” to the village setting and are without the benefit of protective kin. This violence is therefore more likely to target those women who have the fewest resources with which to defend themselves.

The link between women’s powerlessness and their vulnerability to allegations of sorcery is central to understanding Pacific women’s insecurity in a broader sense. Between 40 and 70% of women across the Pacific Islands region experience gendered violence from intimate partners and family across their lifetimes.

Despite 30 years of aid programming in the region, and the best efforts of local and international gender advocates, these levels seem to have remained constant. By some indications they may in fact be rising. If gender violence persists in the region as an epidemic which has not responded to current treatment, this is because the relationship between abuse and women’s disempowerment has not been well understood.

Sorcery-related violence in Papua New Guinea exists as a product of women’s disempowerment in the Pacific. AAP/Eoin Blackwell

It is no coincidence that these rates of violence occur in a region where female political representation currently accounts for a paltry 3.6% of national parliamentary seats. Male political elites across the region make strong statements about alleviating violence against women, but rarely do they back up their words with actions. Few of the region’s male political leaders are prepared to channel public resources towards state agencies that might improve women’s standing or support them to resist this violence.

It also is no coincidence that these rates of violence occur in the region where women’s economic participation is concentrated in subsistence agricultural production or ghettoised in low-skilled, low-wage, and low-prestige cash employment sectors. The economic standing of Papua New Guinea’s women is indicative of regional trends and provides a sharp illustration of how development has failed the region’s women. Papua New Guinea’s escalating GDP growth occurs as a result of a booming natural resource extraction industry and is the envy of neighbouring Pacific Island countries.

Nonetheless, 95% of Papua New Guinea’s women continue to work in subsistence agricultural production and, as a result, have minimal access to the cash economy. Mineral extraction, largely funded by multinational investment, has offered expanded opportunities for waged employment to men but few similar opportunities for women. The result is that women have almost none of the necessary economic resources which would provide them with enough autonomy to escape violent conjugal relationships and violent village settings.

These perspectives on violence and power (or perhaps more accurately violence and gendered powerlessness) are vital to understanding the persistence of women’s insecurity in the Pacific Islands region more generally. Sorcery-related killings should be understood as part of a continuum of gendered violence that plagues Papua New Guinea, pervades many other Pacific Island societies, and which persists as a result of women’s extreme disempowerment.

Those at the very margins of the social hierarchy are subject to the most extreme forms of this violence, but it is a phenomenon that exists in many varieties because women have so few resources – political and material – which might assist their capacity to achieve physical security.

What is even more serious is that this political and economic marginalisation, like the violence it engenders, is accepted, tolerated and normalised in many contexts. While women have made many efforts to resist these influences, through their involvement in local and regional advocacy networks, they generally remain at the margins of the political and economic realm in their home countries. Here they are frequently accused of peddling imported ideas that are culturally inauthentic, and in extreme cases, themselves threatened with violent retaliation to remind them of “their place”.

An important, but little known, contrast to this more generalised scenario can be found in the Francophone territory of New Caledonia. Here, indigenous women have gained an elevated level of political representation (roughly 50% of parliamentary seats) thanks to electoral parity laws that were adopted in 2001. However, beyond a simple statistical increase in women’s representation, these laws have also enabled women political representatives to mobilise state resources to fund a series of agencies specifically devoted to women’s well-being.

Advocacy groups are working to challenge the current social status of Pacific women. AAP/Lloyd Jones

The existence of these state-funded agencies and the explicit attention they pay to the issue of violence against women, is unique to the region. So is the social change they encourage. Recent research suggests that the public profile of the “women’s sector” has encouraged Kanak women to become more resistant to gendered forms of violence and to renegotiate gender relations in ways which challenge male conjugal authority. The success of the parity provisions has also emboldened Kanak women to to demand a fuller role in economic production.

The lessons to be taken from this example are instructive for a region where debates on women’s exposure to violence and their political and economic participation are conducted in a cloistered fashion. We learn from this example that when there are mechanisms in place to assist women’s participation in decision-making, the issue of gender violence can become a national political priority.

More importantly, this attention to women’s institutional empowerment can also pay social dividends. How? By encouraging women to resist their “everyday” exposure to discrimination, disadvantage and the gendered violence they encourage.

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