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‘Sorcery’ controversy rages in PNG, but advocates call for gender equality


Photojournalist Vlad Sokhin talks about his “Crying Meri” imagery. Video: VS

Papua New Guinea is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for women to live in. While a series of images by photojournalist Vlad Sokhin are shocking, Asia-Pacific Journalism finds there are contrasting views about the real problem.

Pacific Scoop:
Report – By Lucas Dahlström

“Rasta was accused of sorcery by the people in her village, after the death of a young man. She was set upon by a crowd at his funeral then beaten and strangled before she escaped. She lost her hand in the attack.”

This quote is from Russian photojournalist and filmmaker  Vlad Sokhin’s newly published documentary Crying Meri.

The picture of Rasta shows a pair of eyes that has suffered from violence and accusation. She covers the rest of her face with an arm that ends where a hand once was.

APJlogo72_iconNow there’s nothing. She was accused of sorcery, as were many women before her.

Rasta was also featured on the cover of  recent edition of Pacific Journalism Review with photos by Sokhin and an interview with investigative journalist Jo Chandler on the issue.

Papua New Guinea is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for women to live in. The pictures of Rasta are among the many shocking images from Papua New Guinea that Sokhin took while he documented the problem in the country for three years.

Last year the country repealed its controversial Sorcery Act which provided a defence for violent crime if the accused was acting to stop “witchcraft”.

But as Sokhin’s documentary shows, the law change has not changed the culture of a people.

Gender inequality
Associate Professor Evangelia Papoutsaki, an academic at Unitec, who has worked and lived in Papua New Guinea as a journalism educator, says the main problem in the country is not sorcery, but gender inequality.

“Sorcery has been a part of the culture for a long time. I remember one time when we went to class, and I couldn’t find the key to the door,” she says.

“I asked the students if they knew where the key were and one of them said that the spirits took it. And he was not joking. So the spiritual world is in their daily life.

“Now they are using the unequal gender relations, as a result of the post-colonial times and Christianity, to justify violence against women.”

Sorcery and witchcraft has a long history in some Pacific countries, and it hasn’t always been linked with something bad and evil.

“Witchcraft and sorcery is not a problem really, because in the past that was a role you would have in the society,” Dr Papoutsaki says.

She explains how people used to go to sorcerers to cure illnesses.

A struggle of different belief systems
Now, with Christianity and the Western culture coming in to the picture, everything has changed, according to Dr Papoutsaki who has been doing research in the country for 10 years.

”Christianity comes in with a different belief system and sits on top of another society with different spiritual practices and they both try to struggle to exist together,” she says.

Dr Papoutsaki was very critical of the Catholic church and their view of women. Nowadays, she says, women need to be ashamed about their body. They need to cover it, according to the Catholic church.

“All of a sudden women became objects of shame.”

Violence against women is a major issue in the Pacific region. According to Amnesty International, up to 60-70 percent of women and girls experience rape or violence. That is one of the highest percentages in the world.

Gennie Ramos, of the Auckland-based Philippine Migrant Centre, has been campaigning for women’s rights in the Philippines and has written a masters thesis about women. She is concerned about the culture of misogyny in the Pacific region.

‘Inprinted in consciousness’
“There is an acceptance that women are inferior and male superior in the Pacific. It’s really hard to get away from that, because it’s imprinted in their mind and consciousness,” she says.

As a former journalist, Ramos believes that writing and contesting a culture with pen and paper can make a change.

She was charged with conspiracy to commit rebellion by Ferdinand Marcos’ regime in the Philippines in the 1980s for writing about issues in the country.

“It’s a very dangerous path, but slowly things can change,” she says.

According to her, women in the Pacific region need to stand up against the culture of misogyny.

“Those women in Papua New Guinea should raise their arms and their voices by writing. There needs to be a cultural revolution,” she says.

Call to NZ
Joan Macdonald of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) and Asia-Pacific Human Rights Coalition (APHRC) says the New Zealand government could do more to speak out about the issue of violence against women in the Pacific.

“They can’t make other countries do things, but they can speak about it. We have written to the recently appointed Ambassador for Pacific Economic Development, Shane Jones, to make him aware that women are not treated as well as men in the Pacific and that they don’t hold many government jobs in the region.

“There is not much point in people going to the Pacific countries and only talking to the men. They need to talk to the women to find out what’s really going on,” Macdonald said.

The Catholic Church has long been fighting sorcery in Papua New Guinea.

Father Franco Zocca said earlier this year that only scientific enlightenment and a massive education effort could help overcome sorcery beliefs in the region.

But Dr Papoutsaki does not believe the Catholic Church is helping women in the country by focusing on sorcery.

“It’s nonsense that the Catholic Church declares war on witchcraft and sorcery. They should fight for equal treatment for women and gender equality,” she says.

“They shouldn’t attack the end result. The issue is not witchcraft, they are approaching it from the wrong perspective.”

Lucas Dahlström is a Finnish student journalist on the Inclusive Journalism Initiative (IJI) programme at AUT University. He is reporting on the Asia-Pacific Journalism course.

Violence  against women in PNG – special report in The Guardian by Vlad Sokhin

PNG women subjected to horrifying domestic violence – special report in The Age by Jo Chandler

1 comment:

  1. Boon Fiz, 25. September 2014, 12:54

    Need more research into issue rather than making comments like “its not a good place for women to live in. This is a real issue so do more research before stating word like PNG is not good.