Living in Fear

In Papua New Guinea, 80% of men who have ever had a female partner have physically or sexually abused them in their homes (Human Rights Watch, ‘Bashed Up’, 2015)

Family violence, which incorporates both domestic and sexual abuse in its definition, is so commonplace that locals have become desensitised to the term; it no longer shocks people when they hear that their sister or female neighbour was beaten by a man. While there are federal acts in place to protect women against family violence, rendering it a crime punishable with a two year jail sentence and a fine of up to US$2000, the implementation process is slow. Meanwhile, women all across the country continue to suffer, silent and afraid.

With these statistics fresh in our mind, we embarked on a film journey that was unlike anything we had done before. We were asked to showcase the incredible actions of a women’s committee in a nation where gender equality barely exists. The Abt JTA Women’s Committee of Papua New Guinea represent a small, but growing, portion of the female population who no longer accept the status quo. Instead, they’ve chosen to become agents of change in their communities, learning from each other and developing a newfound respect for their provincial cultures, traditions, and values.

Our own cultural induction to the PNG lifestyle included a security briefing, as we would be travelling with a security detail for the majority of the trip. And yet, the victims of abuse find little security in their lives, especially if they choose to speak out and attempt to raise awareness of the abuse. Ensuring that the women we spoke to had anonymity was of the utmost importance. This was an instance where protection was the first priority, and the aesthetic and stylistic considerations came second. Although we tried to ignore it, the nagging thought of “what would happen if the women are identified?” ran through each of our minds at one time or another during the shoot. Working under that kind of pressure, knowing that even one little slip up could potentially cause someone to be abused, was harrowing.

But in all good stories there’s a ray of light that shines brightly amongst all the darkness. For us, it was the women on the committee. Although they were meek and mild in public, as soon as they got behind closed doors they were transformed into a cheerful, loud, and animated group of women who strongly believed they could make a difference in their communities. Seeing the women come together in the face of adversity was truly inspiring. With their combined efforts and experience, they are working towards improving the physical, emotional, spiritual, mental and social outcomes and opportunities for other women. It’s a testament to the power of women, to their spirit, and to their courage.

For gender issues to change in Papua New Guinea the movement must be led by the women themselves. And, if the women of the committee are any example, it’s clear that the change has already begun.