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Saturday 21 May 2016 | Published in Regional


There is hope for Papua New Guinea and Australia’s shared domestic violence challenge, writes Denga Ilave, operations manager for Femili PNG. Femili PNG is a NGO based in Lae that runs a Case Management Centre to assist survivors of family and sexual violence.

That domestic violence remains a big issue in Australia, even after decades of effort, shows what a long journey it will be for us in Papua New Guinea. But I am proud of the progress we’ve made and am confident of change.

My Australian friends tell me that domestic violence is increasingly in the spotlight in Australia. There is Rosie Batty’s tireless advocacy, a royal commission, and new government initiatives. They say it is encouraging, even if overdue.

I’m from Papua New Guinea. You might know that family and sexual violence is a big problem in my country – there are estimates that as many as 70 per cent of PNG women experience physical or sexual assault in their lifetime.

Our own experience as women confirms what surveys tell us – that violence is a reality of life for the majority of Papua New Guinean women.

That’s the bad news. The good news, less well-known, is that in PNG, as in Australia, the problem of gender-based violence is receiving increasing attention, and some new solutions are being developed to support survivors and to address the challenge.

My own story illustrates this journey, in a way. Ten years ago I was a teacher, working at a high school. In 2011 I started working for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) at the medical centre it was running in Lae for survivors of family and sexual violence. MSF trained me to become a mental health counsellor, and I learnt by doing.

The medical centre was a huge success, and women and children came to us in the thousands. We learnt over time though that our clients didn’t only have medical or counselling needs. Some of these women were quite desperate – illiterate, traumatised and eking out a meagre existence completely unsupported.

While these women welcomed our medical assistance and counselling, they clearly needed a more permanent solution to the violence in their lives.

In this regard, there was not much we could do to help, other than point them in the direction of the police.

At that time, Lae had very little emergency housing for victims of domestic violence, and we had few links to the police, the courts and others who could potentially help women and children.

It is so satisfying to be able to work with these brave and resilient survivors.

When MSF’s work at Angau Hospital was reviewed by Dr Kamalini Lokuge from The Australian National University, an important gap was identified by those of us who had worked on the frontline with survivors for years.

It was a gap in services – the same women would return to us after we’d treated them, having been hurt by violent partners yet again.

These women were stuck in violent settings with no way to escape from abuse that may ultimately kill them.

From the identification of this gap, the idea evolved to set up a case management centre in Lae. Such a centre could help survivors exit violence.

Women and children could be supported to access the services they need – medical, legal, government child protection and safe houses.

We developed our idea in consultation with the leaders of the growing national movement in PNG working hard to address family and sexual violence, and with assistance from Dr Lokuge and experts at The Australian National University.

Together, we designed and registered a PNG NGO, called Femili PNG, to run a case management centre for adult and child survivors of family and sexual violence.

We had a few uncertain months, but then we got the good news in early 2014 that the Australian aid programme had agreed to provide funding to us through Oxfam, as part of the Pacific Women Shaping Pacific Development programme.

In the middle of 2014, we opened the Femili PNG Lae Case Management Centre.

Since opening its doors, our small team has helped many hundreds of women and children.

It is so satisfying to be able to work with these brave and resilient survivors, and, rather than having to send traumatised women and children out to fend for themselves, to be able to support them to access services and exit lives of violence.

We’ve also supported other services to grow. For example, Lae now has two fully functioning safe houses. We help these safe houses to continue to improve their facilities and functionality, making emergency accommodation available in Lae for women and children escaping abuse.

While there is a long way to go, together with partners we have made some major strides over the last two years.

Working hand in hand with the hospital, police, courts, government welfare offices, NGOs and Lae businesses, we are seeing a stronger, more coordinated system serving survivors of violence.

By helping partners to fill resource gaps – security fencing for a safe house, computers for the court, training for frontline workers – and by facilitating proper case conferencing and service co-ordination, we have shown that centres like ours can help a much larger set of service providers to deliver for the women and children they are mandated to serve.

Femili PNG is only one of a number of initiatives that have sprung up in PNG in recent years to respond to our nationwide challenge of family and sexual violence.

As a country, we have embarked on a journey towards a future in which violence is no longer accepted as inevitable.

That domestic violence remains a big issue in Australia, even after decades of effort, shows what a long journey it will be for PNG and indeed all in our region. But I am proud to be part of that journey and confident of change.