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Kiwis play a hand in new PNG domestic violence helpline

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A survivor of sexual violence waiting to be seen at the Antenatal Clinic in Port Moresby’s General Hospital, Papua New Guinea. Image: Vlad Sokhin/Crying Meri

Papua New Guinea has high domestic and sexual violence statistics, with nearly two thirds of all women experiencing violence at some point in their lives. New Zealanders have had a hand in launching a sexual violence helpline this month, reports Asia-Pacific Journalism.

Pacific Scoop:
Report – By Chelsea Armitage

New Zealanders have helped launch a new family and sexual violence helpline in Papua New Guinea this month, created to campaign against the country’s endemic abuse.

ChildFund New Zealand contributed $2.6 million from charitable donations and match funding from the New Zealand government’s aid programme to the cause.

Chief executive of ChildFund New Zealand Paul Brown says the charity’s work in Papua New Guinea is community-led and the service has been needed for a long time.

“We’ve heard from women, children, and action groups that they really needed this counselling service,” he says.

The hotline will be operated by seven female counsellors specially trained through the University of Papua New Guinea.

They will initially provide counselling services to callers, then depending on the individual’s case, the victim will then be referred to various service providers and organisations across the country.

Long wait
ChildFund Papua New Guinea director Manish Joshi says the counselling and referral service has been in the works for a long time.

“We started planning this about two and a half years ago after a call from the Family and Sexual Violence Action Committee,” Joshi says.

ChildFund Papua New Guinea began developing the idea before reaching out to its offices in Australia and New Zealand. He says New Zealand’s involvement was “really, really helpful and appreciated”.

“We all know the level of violence against women and children is still endemic here. There’s no hidden fact about it.

“The support from the New Zealand government was huge, and I think with Papua New Guinea being a Pacific partner for New Zealand, it’s very timely and appreciated for the New Zealand government to support this hotline extensively.”

The New Zealand High Commissioner in Papua New Guinea, Tony Fautua, says this country’s financial contribution is “significant”.

“It’s not just a one-off service, this is something that we see as a need, and something that New Zealand is willing to support over the long term,” says Fautua.

Technical expert
The hotline launched in partnership with Volunteer Services Abroad, who provided a technical expert to work with ChildFund to set up the hotline.

“It’s also about the partnership with the local NGOs,” Fautua says.

These organisations include the Family and Sexual Violence Action Committee and FHI 360, which Fautua says are “so critical”.

“This is something brought in through ChildFund, but it’s using the existing NGO specialists in Papua New Guinea and working with them.”

The service wasn’t planned to launch until 2016, but because of overwhelming support it was launched ahead of schedule, Joshi says.

Papua New Guinea has a long and chequered history with family and sexual violence.

While recent concrete abuse statistics are hard to come by, the country’s Health Minister Michael Malabag said in February that 68 percent of women in Papua New Guinea had experienced violence.

That’s more than 2.3 million women.

‘Horrific statistics’
“It’s a tough, tough country. A lot of the gains we’ve been making in the villages are being undermined by endemic violence,” ChildFund New Zealand’s Paul Brown says.

“They’re horrific statistics, two out of three women have been violently attacked. The numbers are just unfathomable. The service will be in high demand,” Brown says.

Joshi says simply having somewhere to call when things get tough, coupled with the confidentiality, is fantastic.

“Victims can also hear about some services where they can go, and the psychological and medical treatment options after they have suffered violence,” he says.

But the helpline isn’t just for victims, Brown says. “It’s also for the perpetrators themselves, who may need someone to call when they’re in a dark space.”

Fautua says the hotline gives support not only to women but also families and men, in terms of reaching out and receiving support over and above what they might normally get from the police.

“This counselling service is a win-win, because it provides a counselling service to people who need that support, but it’s also using Papua New Guinea university students, who graduate from counselling.

Experience and skills
“They can use some of the experience and their skills in order to support this very, very important area,” Fautua says.

Security plans are in place for the seven counsellors working on the as they are in “exceptional danger”, Brown says.

“We’re making sure they’re under good care, as we’re worried their personal security could be jeopardised. The counsellors are a brave bunch of women,” he says.

Joshi says security at the building where the counsellors will operate from will be “updated and oriented” as to how to care for the workers.

“We will provide a pick up and drop off service for the counsellors too, to make sure they reach the office and home after work safely.”

Reported statistics on mobile phone use across the country vary between 75 percent and 90 percent of the population having access to a handset.

“In the last couple of years, mobile has had an evolution in Papua New Guinea. It has reached almost all corners of the country,” Joshi says.

Mobile phone issues
Papua New Guinea mobile communications research consultant Dr Amanda Watson has been studying mobile phone use in Papua New Guinea and says these penetration statistics aren’t as clear-cut as they seem.

The researcher says she has set up two of her own telephone helplines in the country, including a childbirth emergency phone.

“In most parts of Papua New Guinea, people don’t have access to electricity, so being able to recharge mobile phone handset batteries can be a real challenge for people,” says Dr Watson.

Although the hotline has been launched as toll-free, it is currently only free of charge for customers of one mobile provider, Digicel.

Dr Watson says people of Papua New Guinea don’t necessarily have a lot of money, and they’re not spending it on a daily basis on their phones.

“Many people wouldn’t necessarily have credit in their phones, even people who are working in quite reasonably well paid jobs by the country’s standards,” she says.

Her 2012 Queensland University of Technology doctoral thesis on the topic is titled The Mobile Phone: The new communication drum of Papua New Guinea. It presents findings that show across all mobile phone users surveyed nationwide, the average number of texts and calls made per day was one, and the median was zero.

“While I know there is potential for phones to be very valuable in Papua New Guinea, it’s very common in a village – and even people all over the country – to not have credit on their phones.”

Cellphone service provider Digicel is currently the only provider to offer the hotline toll-free, but discussions are underway with other providers, ChildFund New Zealand’s Paul Brown says.

Dr Watson says helplines in the country need to be completely free in order to be accessible for the people of Papua New Guinea.

The New Zealand funding will last five years, and the hotline will be monitored, tracked and analysed, with the findings feeding back into further training.

Chelsea Armitage is a postgraduate student journalist at AUT University.

Domestic violence as a way of life: The daily reality for PNG women

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Mobile phone statistics not clear-cut, says researcher Dr Amanda Watson. Image: Amanda Watson/PMC Online