When legal pragmatism wins over justice: A case analysis

By PNG Echo

This is the second in the series about violence against women in PNG. It was my intention to just tell the stories in all their horrific detail … alas, although I consider myself a storyteller, sometimes the academic in me will not be still. An analysis of the case outlined below is instructive on some of the problems that women face in PNG when looking for justice. Within that problem also lies the solution (or at least a part thereof.)   Read on:

The story:

Judge Manuhu, well-meaning but wrong.

A potential client went to see a young lawyer to complain that her husband was adulterous and wanted to take another wife. While I’m not sure with what she wanted him charged, the young lawyer did consider her case was clearly winnable.

Now, I know adultery is still on the statute books in PNG and I’m not sure about the polygamy laws and/or customs in the province in which she was residing at the time. It’s a fair assumption, though, that she wanted to stop her husband taking another wife.

Notwithstanding that she had a winnable case, this young lawyer dissuaded her from taking court action because winning in court would not stop her husband from beating her (a new piece of vital information) and there were the children to consider, he told her.

What a damning indictment of the efficacy of justice in PNG accompanied by an acceptance of a sick status quo.

Instead he gave her enough money to return to her home province but stipulated it must be alone and without taking any belongings or any of her children. Clearly this put her out of her husband’s reach. Problem solved?

No, no, no – it just exacerbated and further entrenched the customs of an unfair and unsafe society for women.

This lawyer’s solution represents pragmatism over justice and punishes the victim. I’m sure the young lawyer was well-meaning, BUT HE WAS WRONG.

The trouble is, this young lawyer grew up to become Justice George Manuhu of the National and Supreme Courts of Papua New Guinea and the learned judge has recently told this story to a public audience of thousands (available to millions) espousing the wisdom of the decision and exhorting others to take notice. With no juries in PNG, he now sits in sole judgment (in the first instance) on similar cases.

Why was he wrong?

  1. He was wrong because he knew that the wife was living with a violent man – yet he focussed on the victim rather than the perpetrator.
  2. She was the one punished by being banished, penniless, in the clothes she stood up in, back to her home province – yet she was the victim.
  3. He irresponsibly aided her to leave her children with a man he knew to be violent – what’s more, children whose mother abandons them suffer enormously – how would they know, at the time, that she had little choice?
  4. It was ignored that it left a miscreant living in the community who would possibly continue his violent ways because his illegal behaviour was never challenged – and it should have been – and by Manuhu. Removing the victim does nothing to curb the behaviour of the perpetrator who, in all probability, will just find another victim.

It was this lawyer’s job to prosecute alleged felons, not to find solutions that let off the offender scot free while penalising the victim. Perhaps he could have given her that one-way fare AFTER the courts had suitably punished the behaviour of the perpetrator, did he think of that?

It brings up the problem of the reluctance of anyone in PNG to tackle the problem of male perpetrated violence against females – or to even acknowledge it exists – except in the abstract. (I know, it is not the only problem that exists with violence but it is the predominant one and the one we are tackling here.)

The solution is for men to stop. It’s simple, really. Except who is going to make them?

When we have a system, in the main administered by men, (where are those women parliamentarians?) most of whom do their own share of wife-beating, according to recorded statistics, who’s going to stand up and point a finger and/or make a stand?

If the statistic of 70% (disputed, I know) is anywhere near the actuality, then we have around 78 parliamentarians who are perpetrators – and why would the judiciary be immune?

Apparently, the story has a happy ending for her: but the end does not justify the means and I find it alarming that the people who commented on the Jjudge’s post, to a wo/man, agreed with him. They were admiring – gushing even. No one had the wherewithal and the insight to say, “no, in this instance, you did not do well.”

Instead they said his story was:

“…inspiring”
“…the Manus way”
“…the ideal way to go”

and my all time favourite – which illustrates my next point perfectly

“…a worthy lesson for a lot of womenfolk.”

The lesson that I took away from the story is that the courts in PNG are all but useless to protect a woman that’s being brutalised and, in fact, they would prefer not to have to bother themselves with such a thing. Prosecuting a man on behalf of a woman would be anathema to many PNGeans – the women should take responsibility themselves (it’s probably their own fault).

I’m not at all surprised that commenters were sycophantic to Justice Manuhu. He is considered a PNG ‘Bik Man’ and the wisdom of a Bik Man is not to be questioned, just marvelled at.

With this one story, Justice Manuhu has set back the cause of beaten women in PNG and further entrenched the paradigms that keep her bruised and subdued.

Yet the perpetrator carried absolutely no responsibility – and that includes an obligation to obey the law – assault is against the law in PNG – yes, even assault on a woman (pardon my sarcasm – it’s hard to contain when I’m utterly disgusted).

Solution within the problem

How much more useful would it have been had the learned judge said something about the evil’s of bashing women? How much more useful if he had roundly condemned the man’s behaviour and said that the courts would not tolerate the flagrant breaking of the laws of the land? How much more useful would it have been if he had talked about zero tolerance in his court for perpetrators of violence against women – that should these miscreants be before him, that he’d throw the book at them? But did he? No he did not.

You ‘Bik Men’ know your word is gospel to those who look up to you – use it to solve the biggest problem you have in PNG today – or can we assume that you are part of the problem: a perpetrator yourself?

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Then she killed him.

By PNG Echo

PNG women in celebration mode

This is the first of a series of articles that seeks to give voice to the suffering of PNG women at the hands of PNG men. PNG women are NOT merely domestic violence statistics to be marvelled at and/or tut tutted over. Every one of these women or girls is a dignified human being who has had that dignity stripped away in often the most degrading, humiliating and horrific fashion. If the details of their stories hurt your sensibilities, I don’t apologise. Imagine what it felt like to go through some of their ordeals – like the ten-year-old recently gang-raped to death – all alone with her attackers. No one came to help – no one showed her any mercy. What about her sensibilities? And there are others… too many… Read on:

There was something not quite right about her.  Her eyes darted from one side to another like someone who was seeing things for the first time. It reminded me of my son’s birth. When first emerging into the world, he did similar.

But she looked vacant, far away, and when her eyes would inadvertently fall on my face she’d avert them quickly. Her demeanour was suggestive of someone suffering severe trauma.

I’m going to call her Yvonne. It is not her real name. Because her identity needs protecting, I am loath to use her real name. Yvonne is a person – more than a statistic – she ought to have a name.

She was not the first accused murderer I’d interviewed that day and she wouldn’t be the last. There was Nancy, Maggie, Sharon, Betty, Esther and more.  All of them had their own tales of horror, each of them increasingly difficult for me to listen to. I felt a heavy burden of privilege; the fortunate sister who’d abandoned them. I felt culpable – still do.

Yvonne endured 17 years of torture from her husband before she ended up killing him. In that time he raped her continually and kept her a virtual prisoner in the house. Yvonne’s husband had an untreated venereal disease, possibly Gonorrhoea – he repeatedly passed this on to her and would only allow her to go and get it treated when it became urgent.

Like the time when her tongue swelled up so badly that she could not swallow. There were often times when the infection got so bad that she would develop chronic urine leakage and she told me that she smelled bad.

Yvonne’s husband would not only rape her vaginally but anally and orally. She didn’t understand why he wanted to use places that “were not meant for that” She said she would cry in pain during the violent bouts of anal sex. But it had little effect.

Apart from the rapes, there were also the beatings. He broke her arm with the branch of a tree; he broke her back and almost broke her neck by standing on it. Yet no one helped her- and she had tried police, the church, family and whatever friends she had left.  He was a respected member of the community and she was his wife – the suggestion that if she were a better wife it wouldn’t happen was always just below the surface.  She was unable to leave him – in PNG it’s difficult or often impossible for a woman to exist alone, without the sponsorship of a man.

When she was at the end of her tether, she decided to end her own life – 17 years of despair were enough. Her life had become not worth living, she told me.

With her husband asleep in the house, and in a moment of lucidity, she decided that she would take him with her – that he didn’t deserve to live. She stabbed him then ran out of the house and deliberately fell on the knife– it penetrated her breastbone. She had already taken all and any medication she had found in the house – still,  he died, she didn’t. She showed me her scar.

“I was his victim for 17 years,” Yvonne said. “Now I’m a victim of the state of PNG for the next 20 (her sentence).

I now better understood why Yvonne appeared so fragile.

Anomalies and indications

Inside Bomana Prison

It was March of 2012 and I was in Bomana Prison, outside the Papua New Guinean capital of Port Moresby, to do a story on women who had murdered their husbands. At the time, the female prison was housing 38 women, all but one or two were there for murder – either in remand waiting for their day in court or already serving a sentence.

This fact, in some ways, is anomalous with global findings, while, at the same time, in other ways, being indicative of them. It is anomalous that such a high percentage of the accused and convicted were there because of committing a violent crime. Violent crime only accounts for a low percentage of crimes committed by females – around 10%.

However, it has also been found that women invariably kill an intimate partner, family member or an acquaintance, in the home – with a spouse most likely to be killed in around 50% or more of cases. In this they were consistent

Violent offenders were over-represented in this milieu while their victims were not.

Justice for women in PNG? – Where are the findings of justifiable homicide?

The clear reason for the anomaly was the presence of extremely high rates of sexual and domestic violence in PNG, these factors being the major cause of creating violent female offenders from otherwise gentle individuals. It was kill or be killed in so many cases – but in a society such as PNG where violence against women is prevalent and even normalised, there was little hope that their plight would get much public sympathy – or indeed judicial justice.

There was a recent case in PNG where a fight between a woman and her spouse resulted in his death because one of her blows ruptured his spleen. The judge gave her a heavy custodial sentence, notwithstanding that there was a long history of domestic violence where she had been hospitalized by him on more than a few occasions and could have expected more that day had her blow not proved fatal. What’s more, many of the beatings she received were while pregnant.

The escalation of the problem to killing was the direct result of her having to defend herself because no one else would.

A surprisingly nice environment  

This was not the first prison I’d been inside, but to my surprise, this one was almost pleasant – especially when contrasted against downtown (or uptown) Port Moresby. It was a series of buildings amongst well-tended gardens with shelters here and there for shade. There seemed to be less evidence of razor wire and armed guards than there was around expatriate compounds and five-star hotels in the nearby capital.

Even surrounded by accused and convicted murderers, never did I feel any fear. The women, were generally, softly spoken, and pleasant. Most were eager to talk – to tell their story. In every case, the killing was preceded by a history of domestic violence.

What came through loud and clear was how the perpetrators of the violence (Men) had completely stripped these women of all their dignity and if they were to avoid prison, the courts would tear a few more strips of dignity off as the victims justified the course that most were forced to take.

They carried the scars of their torment

Many of the women had been raped by their husbands often while children looked on, sexual humiliation being a usual weapon in the wife basher’s arsenal.

As with Nancy, who had killed her gambling, drug-head husband who bashed her up regularly.

Nancy had borrowed money to survive, as her husband was not providing any. He exhorted her to pay back the money by taking up prostitution. Nancy’s husband sold her baby to another woman.

When Nancy killed him, it was self-defence. She feared for her life. “I just wanted him to stop hitting me,” she said.  Nancy claimed, that in spite of all this, she loved him and didn’t engage the police because he was the sole provider. The irony completely lost on her; the hopelessness of the situation leaving me dumbfounded.

One young inmate with a baby on her lap, told me of how her husband’s nephew would visit and rape her. When she complained to her husband he laughed. She ended up killing the nephew – but not until he had cracked open her skull with a bushknife and burned down her house. When he came back the day after the burning armed with a knife and started hitting her again, she managed to get the knife from him and stabbed him with it. Dead.

Other causal factors 

The  paradigm beloved of TV shows and Hollywood where jail wardens are cruel sadists was not anywhere in evidence in the women’s section of Bomana.  In the main, the wardens seemed to have a clear understanding of the reason for their wards incarceration and seemed sympathetic. With the prevalence of violence against women in PNG, many of them could well have been empathetic too, suffering similarly. Who knows?

What they all agreed upon was that polygamy was one of the major contributing factors.

That was certainly true in the case of Brenda who said that her husband would beat her up first when he wanted to go and see another woman. He was not polygamous but adulterous and with an unhealthy dose of religious guilt under his belt, this is how he’d cope with the affairs.

But it doesn’t matter whether it’s adultery or polygamy, it’s all about competition and economics. Not only is the partner humiliated by her ‘man’ preferring another, she also has the problem of the husband’s monetary resources going to another family and her family being starved.

It is why Brenda ended up killing her husband’s girlfriend during a fight. She explained that it was the easier option – her husband was too strong physically for her and besides, she needed him to earn money to keep her family.

When Sally’s husband turned up with a new wife, he took all Sally’s belongings and he gave them to his new wife. When he then stopped paying their children’s school fees, Sally ended up killing the rival for her husband’s affections and money. But this was not before her husband had held Sally down while the new wife urinated into her mouth. Sally said that killing the new wife was the easier road to take as she was afraid of the husband’s family and the compensation she’d have to pay to them in the event of his death (compensation being a large feature of PNGean customary law).

In PNG, it is not rare to see two women physically fighting in the street over a man while the man in question looks on.

With this rivalry rife and encouraged, both by polygamy and rampant adultery, there is very little evidence of a ‘sisterhood’ support network, most women viewing other women as rivals.

The system is broken, it needs to be fixed.

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