By PNG Echo
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
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.
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.
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.