Pacific Scoop interviews Jason Garman, media and communications manager of Oxfam New Zealand.
Report – By Daniel Drageset
Oxfam New Zealand’s media manager characterises the conditions of many of the women in Papua New Guinea as “living in a war zone”.
In an exclusive interview with Pacific Scoop Jason Garman said the situation for women in Papua New Guinea could be compared to many sub-Saharan African countries, and mentioned specifically the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
“Gender violence is endemic in Papua New Guinea. I’ve heard statistics that say by a woman’s mid-20s, she has a 65 per cent chance of having experienced gender violence at some point.
“Rape is very common – often times [women are] are raped by their husbands, and to put it into perspective that’s on a par with some places in Africa, for instance the DRC,” the media and communications manager said.
Oxfam’s programme to combat gender violence was called Ending violence against women, and Garman explained that it involved obtaining legal help for women who had been attacked, providing medical assistance as well as other kinds of help.
Also, Garman said Oxfam New Zealand collaborated with local organisations in reaching out to and helping women.
‘Opportunistic’ sorcery allegations
According to Garman, certain men in Papua New Guinea have been taking advantage of the history the country has of sorcery.
He said sorcery was “common” in Papua New Guinea and that people were now using it “opportunistically”.
“A mob will say they [innocent women] are practising sorcery, and the reason that someone died is that this woman is a sorcerer. That happened to one of the women that we met.
“She was chased by a mob, a rope was strung around her neck, she was dragged through the village and hit in multiple places on her body with a bolt knife, and eventually put her hand up to try to defend herself, and then they cut her hand off,” Garman said.
The California native has been on a two-week trip to Papua New Guinea, where Oxfam New Zealand, in addition to combating gender violence, is also fronting two other projects – namely water and sanitation, and providing and improving the livelihoods of local people.
Garman said that one of the important contributions of Oxfam New Zealand, was providing toilets.
“The most common way that people live in a village is by practicing what they call ‘open defecation’, which means they just go to the bathroom behind the bush under a tree all over the village more or less.
“For sanitation, we’re helping communities dig what we call ‘VIP latrines’, which is a ventilated, improved pit latrine.”
Listen to the full interview – transcript below:
Daniel Drageset (DD), acting editor of Pacific Scoop: Jason, you are on a two-week trip to Papua New Guinea to look at Oxfam’s water and sanitation, gender violence, and livelihood projects. Can you first tell me exactly what you’ve been doing and experiencing so far?
Jason Garman (JG), media and communications manager of Oxfam New Zealand: Sure, I’m in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea right now [in] a place called Goroka. This is where Oxfam’s PNG [Papua New Guinea] Highlands project is centred. We’ve been travelling out to some of the villages where Oxfam works to get a better idea of what’s happening on the ground, our work with partners and look at the villages and see what kinds of changes are happening in terms of livelihoods, ending violence against women and water and sanitation.
DD: How are the Oxfam projects helping the local population?
JG: Well, let me start with water and sanitation. That one is quite tangible. Oxfam’s working in many communities across PNG, and when we do water and sanitation we always actually work in three ways. We help people get clean water supplies close to their homes, we help people get toilets – typically one toilet for each family, and then we also do basic health and hygiene training for the communities. When we do those three things together it tends to decrease the frequency of water-borne illnesses by about two-thirds. If you just provide fresh water for people, for instance, then you still have the use in a village because people wouldn’t be using toilets or washing their hands, so we always combine the three of those things together.
DD: What kinds of sanitation facilities were present there before you arrived?
JG: In some cases people do have very basic toilets, but often times the places that we’ve been, the toilets have been in such bad shape that people aren’t using them anymore. For instance, just a very basic pit toilet where either the water is filled up or it’s quite wet up here right now; it’s rainy season, and sometimes the walls of those toilets collapse and people sort of stop using them. Basically, the most common way that people live in a village is by practising what they call ‘open defecation’, which means they just go to the bathroom behind the bush under a tree all over the village more or less.
For sanitation, we’re helping communities dig what we call ‘VIP latrines’, which is a ventilated, improved pit latrine. They’re quite sturdy; they have a concrete pad, and then a pipe that actually ventilates the smell up and out of a super-structure – a little house on top – to keep the smells away, which help keep the flies down. So [it’s] much better quality toilets, and the great thing about these ventilated, improved pit latrines is that they last for years, and when they do fill up, it’s quite easy to pick up the super-structure over the top, move it over, dig a new pit, and pick up the concrete flab and roll it, because the concrete flab is circular, and just roll it to a new location. [They’ve] been specifically designed so that two women from a village can actually move the toilets and place them in a new site.
DD: And you’re also working towards limiting gender violence and promoting livelihood projects. What can you tell me about that?
JG: That’s right. Oxfam has quite a large gender violence programme, so we call it Ending violence against women. Part of that programme has to do with sorcery, and that involves quite a range of services that we provide for women with multiple different partner organisations up here. Gender violence is endemic in Papua New Guinea. I’ve heard statistics that say by a woman’s mid-20s, she has a 65 per cent chance of having experienced gender violence at some point. Rape is very common – often times [women are] are raped by their husbands, and to put it into perspective that’s on par with some Africa, for instance the DRC [the Democratic Republic of Congo]. It’s like living in a war zone.
Oxfam is working with one partner organisation right here in Goroka called Café Women’s Organisation, and they provide a range of support services for women. When women have been assaulted they can help them with their basic medical needs, help make sure they get to hospital help centre, so that they are being medically looked after, help them get to a safe place, get fed up in a location with some shelter and some food with no longer at such high risk. And then the court system, the legal system, is quite complex, and that is one of the areas where average people don’t really know how to navigate their way through it, so providing some of those legal support services to help people taking their cases to court and work towards justice. In some cases working with police, to file a police report and to get the perpetrators arrested.
In another province that we visited, called Jiwaka, we have another partner organisation called Voice for Change. And that was a particularly inspiring visit. We met two women who both had lost hands, because they were hit with machetes, with bush knives. One was attacked at a funeral because she was accused of sorcery. Often times completely innocent people [are targeted], and it’s common for people to get accused of sorcery. A mob will say they [innocent women] are practising sorcery, and the reason that someone died is that this woman is a sorcerer. That happened to one of the women that we met. She was chased by a mob, a rope was strung around her neck, she was dragged through the village and hit in multiple places on her body with a bolt knife, and eventually put her hand up to try to defend herself, and then they cut her hand off. The other woman that we met was actually attacked by her own husband while she was picking in a coffee field.
Voice for Change, our partner organisation with Oxfam’s help, help these women get to hospital. It’s been a week out there, but the day after they’d been treated with prosthetic hands, so quite a happy day for them, because they had some relatively modern medical assistance and they were just getting new prosthetics. Now, we’ve also helped them with the basic legal [process] to help find the perpetrators, and work through the court system and try to get some justice for them and make sure in the short-term and in the longer-term they’re getting into a safe place where they’ve got some shelter, where they’ve got hopefully some form of livelihood and they have a better future for themselves.
DD: Now, you mentioned sorcery, and I know Papua New Guinea is an extremely diverse country in terms of languages, culture and habits. And in rural places of course, you have reports of cannibalism and women being burned as sorcerers. What challenges does this present for you in Oxfam in terms of working effectively in those kinds of places?
JG: Well, Oxfam’s working in 94 countries around the world, and in every place there’s a totally different context. Oxfam’s kaupapa, or reason for being, the way that we work is essentially the same in all those places. We work to make sure that everybody, but particularly the most vulnerable people in the country, can experience the same basic fundamental human rights that you and I experience every day. And in Papua New Guinea, sorcery as you said, is a big problem. There’s a very large, diverse population – it’s not that large, there’re seven million people in PNG – but there are about 800 different languages spoken. However, the cultural practice and history of sorcery is quite common. It goes back a long way.
The biggest problem in PNG now is that sorcery is beginning to be used opportunistically by people, where you could have people who were trying to get something and then target those vulnerable people in a village, so the women, the children and the elderly. Oxfam’s work here is twofold. One, it’s to try to provide the services in the very short-term that people need to get them to safety and to get them some basic health. But in the longer term, as I mentioned before, sorcery can happen at a funeral or often times when someone dies, and someone will accuse [another person] of sorcery and killing that person. But that can be overcome by some very basic education, and that’s one of the things that Oxfam is working on, to help get people the basic scientific facts, to let them know that people are dying because of preventable diseases, treatable diseases, things like malaria, things like cholera, to explain that it’s not black magic that killed that child, it’s actually a disease, this is what it’s called, these are the symptoms.
When we can help people get that basic education, and often times it’s quite simple to do that with people in school by giving them clean water and toilets, we can keep people in school by giving them a basic source of livelihood that allows parents to pay for their kids’ school fees. And when they can get that basic education, in the long term that has an impact on these sorcery allegations. It’s a long uphill battle, but it’s certainly been inspiring seeing some of the work that’s happened here in PNG.
DD: So teaching the local population about diseases and giving them concrete information that is in your view the best recipe against sorcery, is it?
JG: In the long term, it’s certainly on a personal level, quite effective. In the medium term, another thing that is happening across PNG, the government of PNG has repealed what’s called the Sorcery Act. There are steps being taken legally to try to prevent this from happening, and to try to hold perpetrators to account when they accuse someone and attack them. Now, Oxfam, as I mentioned before, is helping with those legal support services for people. But basic education about the cause of death is one way around it. Basic education about people’s right and about the law is another way to combat sorcery problems. We’re working on all of those methods and trying to empower people, and to build their resilience to being accused of sorcery, again, in this range of ways. Some of them are legal [approaches to combat sorcery], some of them are high-level; some of them are quite personal and lower level.
DD: Do you stay out of certain areas of Papua New Guinea because of concerns of sorcery or other kinds of concerns?
JG: We don’t stay out of particular areas because of sorcery allegations. Sorcery allegations, more or less, can happen anywhere at any time. Now, PNG is prone to violence, in particular tribal fighting. The history of tribal fighting does go back a number of years – circumstances, situations get particularly volatile and we’re forced to stay away from those areas for a length of time. There’s one area right now called Gumine, which is experiencing [a great deal of violence]. Often times the violence happens around disputed election results. There was a local election in Gumine. There’s a disputed result and that’s causing two sides to be untrusting. There are problems on the access road, so in that particular case right now we’re waiting for things to cool down, and waiting for a concrete result, so that hopefully that one can get resolved and we can get back in to that district.
DD: How is it for you to collaborate with the government of Papua New Guinea? They’ve been accused of corruption on numerous occasions, and reports say that corruption is endemic in the country, so how is it to collaborate with them?
JG: Well, Oxfam across the world doesn’t generally work directly with governments. We work with the New Zealand government on humanitarian aid projects, but with the countries that we [operate in], the main focus is just to officially register with the government and make sure that we have the government’s permission to operate in the country. In Papua New Guinea, we’re not particularly collaborating with the government. We’re working on the ground with communities, and with local community-based organisations. That’s the focus of our work, and we think that’s the most effective way to achieve change.
DD: In what areas of your work would say you have been most successful in Papua New Guinea?
JG: It is hard to judge success on a scale of best to worst. It really depends on a particular community. We go into particular communities, and instead of telling them what we think they need, we ask them what they need – and so, in some communities, livelihood is the biggest problems for them. In that case, we might work with a livelihood partner, or work directly, to help them grow more food, grow a wider diversity of food, do it better, and to generate a surplus, and then to help them get that surplus to market so they have a source of income. For doing that up in a region of the Highlands in Simbu Province, where we’re helping people grow bulb onions – and for them, they were absolutely ecstatic. They were thrilled with the thought that they had this beautiful nursery full of onion seedlings that were going to transplanted soon, grown to bulb onions – and bulb onions are quite valuable here, they’re such a high price in market – and they were going to be able to get to market and make an income, so that they could keep their kids in school and pay their school fees. In other communities, water is the biggest problem.
There’s one community [where I] walked with a couple down to the water source, where they have to collect water every day. We interviewed a husband and wife. The woman was in her late 40s, the man was in his early 60s. The woman had to walk down to the water source every single day to carry about 35 litres of water. She got a 20 litre container in a bilum, a woven bag on her head and handing on her back, and then an extra five litre containers in each hand. I actually tried to pick up the amount of water that she picks up and carry it up this hill, and the Highlands are quite steep, and it’s the rainy season so it’s not easy, it was amazingly hard. This woman has an unbelievable chore – every day, day in, day out – whether she feels good or whether she feels bad, so for them water is a major, major issue and we’re just on the cusp of starting a water and sanitation project in that village. So for them, this is the most effective way in the short-term, to bring a water tap stand right next to their houses. And again, they were so thankful. This particular woman, her name is Margaret, she’s really excited about the prospect of not having to do this walk every single day.
DD: That’s really interesting, Jason. Thanks a lot. I think I’ve asked all my questions now. Is there anything else you’d like to add or emphasise?
JG: Sure, I just wanted to let people know in New Zealand that PNG is right here in our Pacific neighbourhood, and that when you look at the basic poverty indexes in Papua New Guinea, they are similar to the situation in sub-Saharan Africa. The Pacific is not just a place where people goes for holidays, it’s not just white-sand beaches and palm trees. There is extreme poverty right here in our backyard. But I want people to know that these are not unsolvable problems. Often times it’s very simple solutions, like constructing a toilet that has a huge impact on peoples’ lives, and explaining to them how diseases get transmitted and what hand-washing with soap can do. These are really inspiring things that we can do, but it’s much more to be done, and I really encourage people to check out oxfam.org.nz and to get involved.
Daniel Drageset is the Pacific Scoop internship editor.