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Partner Violence In Papua New Guinea


Here's a startling figure - 2 of every 3 women living in Papua New Guinea - two-thirds of women - will experience abuse from an intimate partner at some point in their lives. That is one of the highest rates of that form of violence in the world. Why there, and what could help? Those questions drew Durrie Bouscaren to the country. She received NPR's Above the Fray Fellowship, which is dedicated to covering important stories we would otherwise miss, which this story certainly is. A caution - some will find this story uncomfortable listening.

DURRIE BOUSCAREN, BYLINE: Goroka is a valley trading town in the mountains of Papua New Guinea. Think of a tropical Bozeman, Mont. There's a main market for fruit and vegetables and a line of buses to take you along the Highlands Highway to the coast.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Foreign language spoken).

BOUSCAREN: Surveys done by aid groups point to this area as one of the country's major hotspots for violence against women. But there aren't many shelters available for people escaping abuse, so Angela Kaupa started taking them in herself.

ANGELA KAUPA: And see how they sleep, you see.

BOUSCAREN: Survivors stay in an outbuilding on her property. A small altar stands against one wall, and blankets line the dirt floor. Seven to 10 people may sleep here at a time. Right now, she's hosting a family of three.

KAUPA: Sometimes people just show up themselves. And when they come around to my area, we normally say that these are our family members that we have never met them before.

BOUSCAREN: An extension cord from the main house provide some electricity. A garden in the center of the compound provides food. But Kaupa says she's struggling to support her own family, much less another, when something happens that makes us both stop.


BOUSCAREN: On the other side of the compound, a woman is crying, clutching the side of her head.

KAUPA: He's bashing up his wife.

BOUSCAREN: He's bashing up his wife.

Oh, my God. Should we do something?

KAUPA: Let's just let them continue. Maybe they have their own problem.

BOUSCAREN: The woman is a relative, which may have been what made Kaupa reluctant to intervene. Eventually, she does go over to comfort her. But the juxtaposition of someone being hit in a place that should be safe is haunting. People who study intimate partner violence say social acceptance of abuse is the No. 1 indicator for how often it happens. If you look at countries throughout the world, the correlation doesn't rest on GDP or family income or even literacy rates. It's what you see between your parents, your neighbors and popular culture. It's what the world we live in tells us we can accept.

Back in the early 2000s, it took an emergency room nurse named Anastasia Wakon to start the country's first drop-in center for survivors in the city of Lae. She had experienced domestic violence herself, and she saw it in her patients.

ANASTASIA WAKON: While working in the emergency department, a lot of surgical presentations that were coming - especially bush knife wounds - with the young girls, especially the women.

BOUSCAREN: So they started asking deeper questions when patients came in. They kept records and crunched the numbers. The vast majority of trauma cases were domestic violence.

WAKON: Very few are from real trauma accidents in all this.

BOUSCAREN: In 2013, Papa New Guinea passed a law outlining penalties for domestic violence and paving a legal way for people to leave abusive marriages. But it's not that simple, says a survivor who asked me not to use her name. She's still married to her abuser.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Like, I'm educated, but we think that it's normal life. It's happening everywhere. So I didn't have the thought of like taking these issues to the court or to like somewhere where we can get help.

BOUSCAREN: In some families, beatings are seen as a form of discipline. Before they separated, her husband would beat her up when he was drunk. She asked him to go to counseling, and she says she's giving it a year. If he doesn't change, she'll go to court.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: The only thing that is really a conflict in my mind is about our kids, the welfare of our kids.

BOUSCAREN: This is a calculation that a lot of survivors of domestic violence make. Whether you stay or leave an abusive marriage can depend on a lot of external factors like the fact that she has two sons, and they might not inherit tribal land from their father if she gets a divorce. What's more, a court may force her to pay back the $6,000 bride price that her husband paid her family when they married. Still, she considers herself lucky.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Even if I don't get the support from my husband, it's a bit OK because I'm working. I have a good house. I have many money. And my family's supportive and all that. But just for the women that's in the village who are not working, they need support. They need someone to help them.

BOUSCAREN: For a lot of the country, there's still a long way to go. For NPR News, I'm Durrie Bouscaren in Goroka, Papa New Guinea.

INSKEEP: That story was reported with support from the John Alexander Project, named for a former NPR journalist who died on assignment in China. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Durrie Bouscaren was a general assignment reporter with Iowa Public Radio from March 2013 through July 2014.