The Asia Pacific Women thought leadership series brings focus to the status of women in the Asia-Pacific region through expert commentary on women’s social inclusion and economic engagement in several aspects of life.

The concern for women’s safety and the need to focus more attention on addressing gender based violence, especially domestic or interpersonal violence in Papua New Guinea has been brought to the forefront again as a result of several high-profile cases. The Papua New Guinea Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender Based Violence 2016-2025 defines gender based violence as physical, emotional, psychological and sexual abuse directed against a person because of his or her gender in a society or culture including, but not limited to, acts committed with force, manipulation or coercion and without the informed consent of the survivor, to gain control and power over them. This broad definition of gender based violence covers a wide range of violence and recognises that violence occurs within relations of power and inequality.

The national strategy also acknowledges that violence against women and girls is the most prevalent form of gender violence and that violence within the family and in homes are key sites for behavior change. While the strategy addresses all forms of gender based violence such as rape and sorcery accusation related violence, interpersonal or domestic violence is the most visible and prevalent form of violence.

The findings from the Papua New Guinea Demographic Health survey 2016-2018 report that 63 per cent of ever-married women who were interviewed have experienced spousal (physical, sexual, or emotional) violence, with the most common type of spousal violence being physical violence (54 per cent), followed by emotional violence (51 per cent). Twenty-nine per cent of women have experienced spousal sexual violence. Fifty-seven per cent of women who have experienced spousal violence, both physical and sexual, have sustained injuries such as cuts or bruises.

Attempts to address gender based violence or violence against women has been a long and fraught battle with advocacy led by civil society.

It has often been women who have been at the forefront of advocating for a better response to gender based violence. Leadership from some sectors of government such as law and justice and the health sector has enabled changes in policy and legislation. Over the last ten years the Family Protection Act (2013) has been introduced, specialist services such as Family and Sexual Violence Units, Family Support Centre’s and more Safe Houses have also been established.

The most recent highly publicized cases in Port Moresby has ignited public protest and condemnation. Public protest and demand for government action has led to statements by several leaders of the all-male Parliament including the Prime Minster.

Although women’s social, political and economic participation is guaranteed in the Papua New Guinea constitution, the reality is that high levels of violence will continue to slow progress in women’s leadership, including at the highest political level.

Research shows that the structural barriers to addressing women’s political participation is immense with no woman being able to win a seat in the last elections. In addition, election related violence poses a great hindrance to women candidates and voters. At present, there is a need for more women in senior leadership roles in the public service, in business and most glaringly the Papua New Guinea Parliament. 

How do we work to address gender based violence in a landscape where government resources and support is minimal, where the acceptance of violence is widely accepted and women’s leadership at the highest level of decision making is absent?

Activists and women’s organisations are working in a space where according to the National Demographic Health Survey, 70 per cent of women and 72 per cent of men believe that a husband is justified in beating his wife in at least one of five specified situations. For example, both women and men are most likely to agree that a husband is justified in beating his wife if she neglects the children (59 per cent and 61 per cent, respectively) and goes out without telling him (50 per cent and 49 percent, respectively). While men in rural areas are more likely to agree that wife beating is justified under specific circumstances than urban men (73 per cent versus 66 per cent).

Women and men with a higher education (59 per cent and 64 per cent, respectively) are less likely to agree that wife beating is justified under specific circumstances. However, a cause for concern is the finding that women’s experience of spousal violence increases with increasing education and household wealth. Fifty-five per cent of women with an elementary education reported experiencing spousal violence, as compared with 76 per cent of women with a higher education.

I have called for a holistic locally based response to address gender based violence. A holistic approach in my view not only means ensuring that the response to gender based violence in terms of a well-funded and staffed case management system, adequately trained and responsive police and psycho-social services are in place. It also includes supporting existing community based initiatives and ensuring that community activists and programs are well supported and protected. Within the corporate sector the Business Coalition for Women provides a great opportunity for businesses to engage with programs on addressing gender based violence and women’s leadership.  

A holistic approach will also mean a shift in thinking about and investing more in prevention of violence.

This will require an evaluation of how policy and legislation is framed in order to take into account the challenges of policing gender based violence, police brutality and diverse local contexts, as well as taking into account the important voices of survivors of gender based violence. Much of the activism that takes place is urban based, with the majority of the rural based population removed from the policy and legislative sphere of Port Moresby.

An example of legislative change is the 2013 repeal of the Sorcery Act of 1971 and the amendment of the criminal code section 299A that now allows for the death penalty for any person found guilty of a murder as a result of sorcery accusation. This has not resulted in the decrease of sorcery accusation or related violence, and if anything has caused confusion among law enforcement and those in the community. Similarly, the family protection act 2013 is an important piece of legislation that needs to be more widely socialised into communities. At present it is seen as a ‘women’s law’ only to protect women, however the family protection act is gender neutral and provides a wide definition of family.

Papua New Guinea still has many challenges ahead in addressing gender based violence, however it must be acknowledged that the current systems that are in place are due to the work and activism of many phenomenal women. It is imperative that women’s voices continue to lead, but also work in partnership with men to address gender based violence in the country.


Dr Fiona Hukula is a Senior Research Fellow and Building Safer Communities Program Leader and co-program leader of the Gender in PNG program at the Papua New Guinea National Research Institute (PNGNRI). She received a PhD in Social Anthropology from the University of St Andrews, Scotland. Fiona also holds a Masters in International Criminology from the University of Sheffield and a BA in Anthropology from Victoria University of Wellington.