…then the crowd watched as they burned her alive.

By PNG Echo

It’s funny what gets etched into memory and what gets forgotten – I remember that today, February 6, is the birthday of the now adult twin boys of my childhood friend, whom I have not seen for decades.

They watched as she burned
They watched as she burned

Today is also the anniversary of the brutal slaying of Kepari Leniata – and I had forgotten.

Yet it was just one short year ago that this young mother, from Papua New Guinea was accused of witchcraft and publicly burned alive.

How she suffered is unimaginable.

After many hours of torture, with the perpetrators committing unspeakable acts of sexual violence on the young woman, she was tethered by her hands and her feet to planks of wood and carried to a public place where she was thrown on a rubbish tip and set alight.

It happened in the Western Highlands town of Mt. Hagen.

The assembled public watched.  They did nothing.  No one lifted a finger to help, even though some spectators with ringside seats were purportedly police officers.

All this they captured on the cameras of their smart phones.

How could they?

Too soon forgotten

The anniversary of this atrocious event has sneaked up on me.  There’s been little to remind me.

I am surprised that the women’s movements, (which this incident originally spawned) with the exception of some low-key mentions, have not chosen this date to really hammer home the anti-violence-against-women message – because it certainly still needs hammering home.

The unspeakable acts of violence go on unabated in PNG.

The most high profile recent incidents have been the beheading of the Bougainvillean women soon after the death of Kepari; then the gang rape of the young girl by police in Wewak and the subsequent imprisonment and abuse of the female complainants from the NGO by Wewak police.

Lawyer Wass Korowi's alleged victim - his wife's mother
Lawyer Wass Korowi’s alleged victim – his wife’s mother

In another inglorious moment, there was the public allegation, aired on EMTV, by the battered and bruised mother in law of prominent lawyer, Wass Korowi.

Korowi was allegedly the perpetrator of such extreme violence on his wife’s mother that his victim lost one of her fingers – her face was bruised and bloodied.

The allegations against Korowi have added a new dimension to domestic violence and redefined its boundaries to include any of his in-laws that take his fancy or incite his ire.

He allegedly also raped his sister in law.

But albeit horrific, my list is not even nearly exhaustive.

In reality, very little has changed for women in PNG since the ‘witch burning’ and this is in spite of the parliament passing the ‘Family Protection Bill’, that makes domestic violence an offence under PNG law.

What use is legislation with no means or will towards enforcement?  And what if the law enforcers are themselves perpetrators? Both scenarios are well known in PNG.

I believe there have been no consequences for the perpetrators of Kepari’s murder, nor the Bougainvillean atrocities.  The Prime Minister did intervene in his capacity as Minister for Police in the Wewak rape (after a bit of a prod) but I have yet to hear of the results of his inquiries and if anyone has been brought to justice.

Ditto for the Wass Korowi allegations.

A symbol of hope?

I thought (hoped) that the sickening death of Kepari Leniata would prove a watershed moment in the history of PNG women, but since, I have had serious misgivings.

Kepari Leniata, the catalyst for the cry ‘enough is enough’ (and it is) by women, seems to have been subsumed beneath various agendas co-opting the nascent movement.

Agendas such as ‘nationalism/racism’ – “you’re not from PNG, you wouldn’t understand.”  Notwithstanding these barbs are thrown at women – surely, it is they that would understand.

Then there are the men themselves.

VAW exhibitionWhile I think it is desirable to recruit men into the movement and the movement has attracted many admirable and dedicated men,  it wouldn’t be the first time a women’s movement has been used to further a man’s agenda – be it political or otherwise.

I suspect some motives are less that altruistic of some of the men who have been embraced by the PNG women’s movement.  They’re the unscrupulous who co-opted and basked in the glow of the initial popularity that the movement had garnered.

It’s not new: the PNG male MPs made themselves the champions of women’s rights in 2012 when they promised to back the 22 reserved seats for women in parliament, being fully cognisant that women are approximately 50% of the voting public.

Alas, it was a well-manipulated moment of callous calculation for short-term political expediency.

The 22 seats were always a pipe dream of women who hoped that men would willingly change a very desirable (to them) status quo.

Then there is the cloak of religion.

I’ve no wish to deny anyone their faith, but there are many churches in which to practice it, perhaps a women’s movement is not the place – especially given the mixed messages contained in the scriptures, some of which have been used for many centuries to subjugate women – making religion often part of the problem not the solution.

And then again, I wonder how many of the women who express a desire to stop the violence really understand the root of the problem?

There have been various discussions led on numerous facebook sites defining what constitutes a ‘real’ woman (often by women themselves).

The postings invariably describe a woman’s enriched femininity by the extent of the services she provides to her man – unquestioning loyalty, absolute fidelity  (even in the face of his infidelity)…and other ‘services’ and devotions that more aptly describe a doormat than a human being.

The comments usually come thick and fast:

Amen to that susa.

Full support!

– these postings and the proffered notion are nothing if not popular.  I remain the dissenting voice yelling “no, no, NO!”

They stripped her naked, but covered her face - they've dehumanised her
They stripped her naked, but covered her face – they’ve dehumanised her

The notion that you have no intrinsic worth as a woman other than to ‘add value’ to your husband’s status is insupportable and under this premise the violence will never stop.

You’ll fail – he’ll hit you for failing.

You’re not worth anything, except to enhance his ego, remember?

Lest we forget

In conclusion I’d like to recognise Philly Kelegai for her post-a-photo-of-Kepari-Leniata campaign to mark the anniversary of the atrocity, which should never be allowed to happen ever again.

I would also like to recognise Judy Atkinson and Lydia Kailap for the work they do physically amongst the victims and perpetrators of violence against women.

To the campaigners against domestic violence and violence against women generally, I’d like to inquire: “where the bloody hell are you?”  This macabre anniversary should have been heralded with a roar, not a whimper.

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9 thoughts on “…then the crowd watched as they burned her alive.

  1. Its forgotten because “sanguma” or spiritualism is a reality in PNG. This public killing is one of many, unfortunately women are at most times likely to be victims. Even in Port Moresby. No outsider can understand that most people consider it justice. The circumstances surrounding some deaths cause the reaction of witch hunt. Maybe journos with conviction should come and dedicate a couple of years in the villages to investigate and see whether PNG men just like surround women in public and kill them. Or do they and public have a reason? The Government and Police are aware of these realities but are still confused how to act, as they neither support nor oppose this. Best to have a serious interview with police on this issue.

    • Dilu – It is sheer arrogance to assume that “no outsider” can understand. Believe it or not, PNG is not THAT unique.

      Hundreds of years ago, in societies that we now think of as ‘progressive’, the same thing was happening. The practices discontinued as people were educated out of their superstitions and science proved that ‘witchcraft’ was not responsible for anything that happened in their society.

      The fear was taken away, there was no more need to root out or fear evil that was never there.

      PNG needs to be pulled kicking and screaming into the 21st century before any other woman suffers Kepari Leniata’s fate. The world is not ignorant anymore.

      What’s more, have you noticed, the mob of retribution in PNG usually choose a particularly vulnerable female to accuse as a witch – someone with no male protection. Do you think this is because the mob think that women with powerful male relatives cannot possibly be witches.?

      No. In the main, they want an easy target. Also the amount of sexual sadism involved in the ‘retribution’ of late differs markedly from tradition.

      A necessary human trait is empathy. Without it we are sub-human. Psychopaths lack empathy – that’s why they can do what they do.

      Why do you think there was a global condemnation of this atrocity. It’s because we empathized.

      What’s happened to the empathy of the torturers and the onlookers?

      A society without empathy is dangerous place indeed.

    • In a word ‘commodification’.

      As a commodity, a woman is expected to conform to a specification. Often, violence towards her, especially in a relationship, is as the result of unrealistic expectations (or even realistic ones) being disappointed – to beat her back into shape.

      In a society in transition, such as PNG, it is particularly marked as many women emancipate themselves from their traditional roles (believe it or not, some of them would not have relished them) and men try to beat the status quo back into them.

      Were it not for the fact that the partner thinks of her as a possession, a commodity, he would not claim the right to do that – but, you know, he has ‘bought’ her (Bride Price).

      Women are humans, we contain legions. We have the right to pursue happiness – we have the right to be who and what we want to be. The only right a man should have over that process is to express his approval (or not) by choosing that woman’s company or walking away from it – just as you would, were she a male.

      Often (in jest, I hope) when we’re angry we say that we’re going to go home and “kick the cat”. Why the cat? Because it is perceived to have the lowliest status in the household. Unfortunately, in Papua New Guinea, I suspect the cat would be often replaced by the wife – and not in jest but in actuality.

      • Thanks Susan,

        Im not quite sure I agree with you that that is the ROOT problem. Wass Korowi was not in any “possession” of his mother-in-law, yet he assaulted her. The men who attacked Kepari Leniata and other women suspected of sorcery did not necessarily have any possessive rights over them. Yet they did what they did.

        • Yes, Ganjiki, it’s complex. The subject of a whole thesis rather than few paragraphs, I’d warrant.

          As I said with Wass Korowi – he seems to have expanded the scope of domestic violence and the perception of people he has the ‘right’ to assault. I see this as an escalation rather than an anomaly.

          in the finish, it’s all linked to the status of women. Why is it that women are usually the evil sorcerers? (and yes, I know, sometimes men are accused too).

          There’s a simple core to this problem but then so many strands or tentacles lead from that core involving factors too numerous to name here.

          But thanks for your interest Ganjiki – and thank you for the thought-provoking questions.

  2. Thanks Susan for resurfacing this very important issue. The sad fact, in my view, is that people are disj

  3. Susanne,
    the global view and yours and others is not relevant, as I said before you are foreign and continue to be foreign in your view until you live and experience the incidents prior to these killings. I don’t condone the abuse, but it will take time as its widespread(witchcraft). Many believe that the possessed fled to remote solitude, like churches where they spread out through the many missions, some coming to PNG. Your Global view of empathy makes me chuckle honestly, it s a presumption and flattery so that’s all I’ll say. Global views are Hollywood, IMF and white Araynian supremacy induced and mostly rooted to evil, veiled by goodness. Evil exists out there and the poor, starving, suppressed and dead people have little hope in the views of a world of much but little to offer. Empathy is an action too you know? Go tell that to your world.

    • What can I say, Dilu? You claim: “I don’t condone the abuse but…” then you go on to condone it and pass the buck, telling us that a society that condemns this atrocity is “…rooted to evil.” Well, physician, heal thyself.
      My ‘Global’ view of empathy is not linked to geography but to type. Empathy is a human attribute and that which separates us from animals. To lack it is to be deficient – aberrant. What is to be deduced by your argument is that PNGeans have none – making them aberrant? I reject that premise.