By Catherine Wilson (Inter Press Service)
GOROKA, Apr 16, 2012 (IPS) - Papua New Guinea’s infamous track record on gender-based violence – with an estimated 75 percent of women and children experiencing some form of violence, primarily domestic abuse – is poised to worsen.
A Highlands-based non-governmental organisation is warning that unless the government takes immediate action to prevent the risk of increased cash flows from the nation’s largest resource extraction project, which is escalating alcohol consumption and eroding family cohesion, violence against women and girls will very likely increase.
Construction of the 15 billion dollar PNG LNG Project is underway at a gas production and processing site near Tari, Hela Province, in the Highlands, and at liquefaction and storage plant on the south coast of Central Province, 15 kilometres from the capital, Port Moresby.
The joint venture between Esso Highlands, a subsidiary of Exxon Mobil; Papua New Guinea’s National Petroleum Company; Mineral Resources Development Company; Petromin PNG Holdings and international partners JX Nippon; Oil Search and Santos, is expected to double the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP).
Approximately 8,000 Papua New Guineans nationwide are employed in the preliminary construction phase. According to local sources in the Eastern Highlands, there have been many cases of men leaving employment in public service sector jobs in the province to work for the gas project. After leaving their families to move to project sites, many entered into relationships with other women.
John Ericho, executive director of the Eastern Highlands Family Voice, which addresses social issues including family and sexual violence, warned that the mass migration of male workers and increased circulation of cash from the joint venture will bring social problems.
"Polygamy levels will increase as more money for men means they can afford more wives," Ericho said. "Desertion and neglect will result as men leave their spouses for younger women. Women will also leave their spouses for men with money."
"These issues create the environment for domestic violence and abuse," he continued. "Husbands may fight with their wives if they ‘interfere’ with their relationships with other women, and wives fight with co-wives."
The majority of cases that Family Voice receives involve domestic violence, with 80 percent of clients being women, 10 percent men and 10 percent children. The main causes of domestic violence are rivalry associated with polygamy, adultery and management of money within families, with alcohol a major contributing factor.
"Other issues like HIV/AIDS, which is already an epidemic, may get worse," Ericho warned. "Children, through child abuse and neglect, will be the greatest losers. Their problems are inter-generational with anti-social behaviour and attitudes resurfacing later in life."
Oxfam recently commissioned the LNG Impact Listening Project to gain insight into people’s experiences of the resource extraction project and assist communities to mitigate negative social impacts. The project found that "people thought too much of the money earned from PNG LNG Project employment was spent on alcohol."
"The young men who are being employed are not using their wages in the right manner. They get drunk every weekend from Friday to Sunday night, even Monday morning," reported some participants, adding, "There is adultery at the site. Back at the village, drugs and alcohol, but adultery is the worst problem (as well as) problems with broken marriages. Not much is done to tackle this."
In Papua New Guinean society, customary land owned by clans and their members is the main measure of wealth and status and provides livelihoods for future generations. In contrast, the development of the country’s cash economy is a relatively new phenomenon.
Roseanne Koko, senior counsellor at Eastern Highlands Family Voice, described how the combination of money and polygamy created conditions for domestic abuse.
"Husbands go out with other wives or mistresses, the money disappears and then the mother or wife don’t have money to feed the children," Koko explained, "In some cases, children and mothers go without food because the husband is doing something else."
Alcohol fuels violence
"Men go out drinking, they come home and their wives will ask ‘where have you been?’" Koko told IPS. Such confrontations generally spark violent altercations.
Last year, the report ‘Hidden and Neglected’, produced by the humanitarian organisation Doctors Without Borders (or Médecins Sans Frontières, MSF), revealed the severity of domestic and sexual violence in the town of Tari, near the LNG project site in the Highlands.
MSF reported 99 percent of survivors of family and partner violence retained physical injuries. In the case of sexual violence, 65 percent of cases were at risk of HIV/AIDS, 15 percent involved two or more perpetrators, while 74 percent of all cases involved children under the age of 18 years and 56 percent were children under the age of 12 years.
A spokesperson for Esso Highlands said plans to address domestic violence as a potential social impact of its operations include supporting the Law and Justice Sector’s Alcohol Abuse Symposium and establishing a policy advisory group on alcohol abuse in Papua New Guinea. The company facilitates Personal Viability Training to assist people in project communities to improve livelihoods, manage social problems and budget for family needs.
"The project also conducts marital relationships training for participants in project areas with the support of Population Services International, an NGO that is helping to reduce alcohol consumption, episodes of gender-based violence, concurrent partnerships, and increase school attendance," Esso Highlands claimed.
But Ericho believes the government will need to prepare for a potential rise in domestic violence by better resourcing the Department of Community Development - the national body tasked with addressing the issue - and the police force, while simultaneously funding social NGOs to assist government agencies, and improving the health system.
During her visit to PNG in March this year, United Nations Special Rapporteur on violence against women, Rashida Manjoo, also highlighted the critical need for improvements to the criminal justice system to enable greater access to justice for women and girls suffering from family and sexual violence.
Equally important, according to Ericho, are long term preventive strategies, including funding the education department to raise the literacy level of the population from 50 to 100 percent during the next 20 years.
The Department of Community Development in Eastern Highlands Province said that meetings with the national government to discuss social issues connected with the PNG LNG Project were planned for after the national election in June.