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Neighbourhood watch keeps an eye to our north

Posted By on October 16, 2018 @ 08:10

With an estimated two-thirds of women in Papua New Guinea subjected to domestic violence, business, civic and military leaders are working with a formidable Australian couple to deal with a practice that’s devastating the social fabric of a key nation on Australia’s doorstep.

Gender-based violence—being ‘bashed up’—is occurring in crisis proportions and is having a debilitating impact on the population, which flows on through the economy and adds to PNG’s vulnerability.

Last year, the government in Port Moresby released its Papua New Guinea national strategy to prevent and respond to gender-based violence [1], which says that while clear data on levels of this—violence is scarce, surveys from individual areas came up with proportions such as 65.5%. The government said: ‘It provides evidence to indicate that urgent action is required.’ Many believe the figure of 65.5% is an underestimate.

In the strategy, Prime Minister Peter O’Neill says gender-based violence is a worldwide phenomenon but: ‘This form of human rights violation is occurring at an alarming rate in Papua New ­Guinea.’

He says ‘it must be stopped’ and promises ‘our collective effort will stamp out this epidemic before it is too late’.

Chillingly, the report says: ‘90% of women in prisons in PNG are serving time for murder. They acted in self-defence in response to family violence.’

An earlier government report on prospects for economic development says PNG cannot reach its potential if inequality continues to exist. ‘Victims are not well reported due to cultural issues and fear. There is a need to increase the ­capacity and effectiveness of enforcing agencies and institutions to protect and cater for victims.’

Local business leaders say domestic violence costs them hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

Stephanie Copus-Campbell has been closely involved with PNG for 18 years, first as an Aus­AID official and now as chief executive of an oil industry organisation, Oil Search Foundation, which implements projects in PNG focused on health, education and women’s empowerment.

Approached by local community leaders, she asked Australia’s former sex discrimination commissioner ­Elizabeth Broderick for advice on how to promote change in a distinctly male-dominated society. The local leaders were aware that to effect change they had to involve men as well as women.

The answer, says Broderick, is to harness a high-profile male who had publicly condemned acts of domestic violence in Australia, one of her ‘male champions of change’. An excellent choice, Broderick says, is very close to home: Copus-Campbell’s husband General Angus Campbell, chief of the Australian Defence Force.

Apart from being aware of PNG’s strategic importance, the special forces officer has his own strong interest in helping Australia’s northern neighbour.

He lived in PNG as a child and went back there regularly. He agreed to take part with his wife and Broderick in a leadership forum funded by the Oil Search Foundation to launch a world first private-public program to tackle family and sexual violence.

The forum is part of a broader initiative called Bel isi PNG (A Peaceful PNG), which taps the abundant resources in the business community to prevent domestic violence and improve services for those experiencing it.

Senior PNG military officers quizzed Campbell on the weakening impact domestic violence can have on the culture of a military force and asked him to come back to PNG and talk to the troops about it. Following Campbell’s visit, PNG Defence Force commander Gilbert Toropo, Police commissioner Gary Baki and players from the NRL’s Brisbane Broncos, who have a huge following in PNG, have all committed their support to the Bel isi program. PNG military and police chiefs will join a walk next month to strengthen the message to their own men in uniform that bashing up women has got to stop and it must be taken seriously as a crime.

Port Moresby Governor Powes Parkop is a key driver of change in PNG and he’s initiated 8 kilometre Sunday morning hikes across the city to get the populace healthier and to demonstrate the need for public safety, especially for the hundreds of women and girls who take part.

More often than not, Copus-Campbell is the only expat on these walks but it’s where, she says, ‘the magic happens’ as Papua New Guineans find their own solutions to gender-based violence.

At the leadership forum in Port Moresby, Campbell delivered the same message he’s aimed at perpetrators of domestic violence in Australia, that self-discipline, respect and decent behaviour have to start at home. That domestic violence costs in terms of missed work days, loss of productivity and workplace occupational health and safety concerns. That you don’t want someone flying an aircraft, driving a vehicle, or operating machinery if they’re in serious emotional or physical pain or distracted about whether they’ll be safe when they get home.

As chief of the ADF he was conscious that skills, knowledge, weapons and communication systems made the modern soldier the most lethal ever fielded. That meant that more than ever, perpetrators of family and domestic violence are fundamentally at odds with the meaning and profession of soldiering, Campbell says.

‘When one of my people engages in the illegal and ill-disciplined use of violence at home, in training or on exercise, my confidence in them to execute their duties lawfully and discriminately in circumstances of immense stress on the battlefield is deeply undermined,’ he says.

‘They are not living by Australian Defence Force values: I see cowardice, not courage; comfortable habit, not the initiative to break the cycle. I don’t trust them to respect the innocent, the weak and the wounded, nor to serve the team rather than themselves.

‘This is why family and domestic violence is a war fighting capability and workplace issue.’

Some PNG army officers join Parkop on his walk on the following Sunday and, as they amble along amid a mass of women and girls, they tell Copus-Campbell how inspired they are by what her husband had told them and that they are determined to act on it.

PNG navy captain Philip Polewara tells The Australian he and his fellow officers are grateful that someone as busy as Campbell is willing to come from Australia to talk to them.

He says: ‘Ours is a very masculine society and in many parts of PNG the man is everything. We have to get our men to understand the importance of the role of women, and we appreciate General Campbell and his wife coming to advocate for them.’

Parkop says his goal is to use the capital as a base to change his country. Nearly all of PNG’s 1,000 tribes and 860 languages are represented in the city, which makes it an ideal place to start. The program to end domestic violence is critical to the city and the nation, he says. ‘The biggest challenge is people not respecting themselves. We can build infrastructure, but unless we change attitudes, society will continue to fail.’

Having role models such as Copus-Campbell and Campbell willing to come to PNG is crucial, Parkop says.

‘Stephanie is passionate about PNG and it’s very important for us to hear what Angus is doing for the Australian Defence Force.’

During her time in PNG, Copus-Campbell has been appalled by the impact of extreme ­violence on women and children, and some men.

As the campaign to stop it gathers momentum, there’s been a remarkable response from business leaders who have long wanted to do something but felt the problem was too big to deal with.

Copus-Campbell attributes her own passion about the issue to the emotional stress of seeing many friends and colleagues struggle with it and the increasing burden it has placed on the organisations she’s led. She’s dealt with numerous cases where members of her staff have not come to work for days, or have left work, or have not been able to focus.

A staff member recently missed work for more than a month. When Copus-Campbell was finally able to find her, she discovered the woman had been badly injured in a domestic dispute. She was too ashamed to explain the situation, and had instead stayed home and risked losing her job.

‘As terrible as these stories are, I am excited about how things are slowly starting to shift,’ she says. ‘Thousands of Papua New Guineans are standing up to say enough is enough. They are taking leadership in their families, communities, churches, businesses, government departments and cities to drive change.’

An early experience in PNG that has haunted Copus-Campbell occurred in her first days there when she was in a small hospital in Western Province and met a young mother who had been badly beaten by her husband.

‘She pulled back her shirt and showed me her terrible injuries. She said she came to the hospital because giving birth to her child was the last time she had felt safe.

‘She saw me as this foreign lady, someone with power, someone who could save her. She begged me to help, telling me that if she went home her husband would kill her and her baby.

‘There was nothing I could do. Not a thing. I was in town for a few hours. I knew nothing about the justice system, I had no idea how to engage the police or any other service. Although I spoke with the staff I feared by getting involved I would actually make matters worse. I have no idea what happened to her or her small child. I’ve had to live with this ever since.

‘I could not help her, but I could try to help others. So one way or another I have been committed to doing my bit over the past 18 years.’

The local Bank of South Pacific has donated a building that has become a safe house for victims, and another company, Steamships Trading, has donated an office now being used as a case-management centre. Security company G4S has agreed to send teams, free of charge, to collect victims and transport them to the safe house. Another company is providing cleaning supplies and furniture, and PNG Power is giving free electricity.

The Australian government has provided $4.5 million to support the initiative and the Harold Mitchell Foundation and Newcrest Mines have made donations.

Says Copus-Campbell: ‘I have confronted domestic violence in Alaska, where I grew up, Australia, my home, and PNG, a country I love. I am inspired by the fact so many Papua New Guineans are leading change and I’ve found ways to help them through the private sector.’

Campbell says addressing domestic violence is a shared interest for him and his wife.

‘We both also have a long-term association with PNG. I lived there as a child. Our own children spent their early childhood in Port ­Moresby and I have many longstanding professional relationships with Papua New Guinean military leaders whom I respect.’

The aftermath of a more recent dark event indicates that, albeit slowly, things are changing. A woman working with Copus-Campbell came to her workplace after a vicious assault. ‘She was completely traumatised. But she felt work was a safe space to seek help. I knew exactly how I could help her because Oil Search has just launched a policy that sets out how much leave I could offer, counselling I could pay for and transport I could give her to and from work.

‘I was then able to refer her to the Bel isi PNG case management centre. She sent me a note saying the perpetrator had been apprehended and they were moving to the next steps of prosecution. She told me she could not have gotten that far without the support from work.

‘I recalled again that small steps can lead to nationwide change and that nothing is too hard for a community of people working together.’

Port Moresby-based Serena Sasingian says the efforts of Copus-Campbell and her husband are enormously important to local people because they demonstrate that PNG is not alone in its quest to address gender equality and violence against women.

‘They’re a force for change not only in their own country but in PNG as well,’ Sasingian says.



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[1] Papua New Guinea national strategy to prevent and respond to gender-based violence: https://archive.org/details/UNDPPNGWHRDStrategy2016202530mmMargin290816LR1/page/n0

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