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Answering calls for help in Papua New Guinea

Aussie volunteer Lauren Hart is used to working in challenging circumstances. For the last four years, she worked on the frontline at a sexual assault crisis counselling service in Tasmania, guiding survivors, women, men and children, through their darkest and most traumatic moments.

Looking for an opportunity to work overseas, Lauren applied for a VSA volunteer position with ChildFund Papua New Guinea to help train telephone counsellors for a new family and sexual violence counselling hotline. In February, she got on a plane to Port Moresby where she has been living for the past six months, seeing first-hand the challenges faced by women and children in a country with some of the worst rates of family and sexual violence in the world.

Lauren says she was aware of the extreme levels of violence against women and children in Papua New Guinea and was conscious of the risk involved. “You read all about car jackings, gang rapes, raskols, all that sort of thing. Yes, you’ve got to be cautious but it isn`t like that everywhere. The people around you are friendly, they keep you safe.”

We caught up with Lauren in Port Moresby to hear more about her experiences so far.

What have you learned about the issue of violence against women in PNG?

I think one of the most challenging things has been the attitudes towards women. Because of bride price, the social discourse here is that men have ownership of their women. In some areas, the women are surprised that it`s not their husband’s right to hit their wives. We’ve been in communities where ChildFund works, discussing gender-based violence and what we’re doing with the hotline, and people in the room have sat there and gone, but isn’t that normal? We’ve got to challenge every assumption when it comes to that.

You’ve worked in sexual assault crisis counselling in Australia, how does this compare with your experience in PNG?

One of the issues in PNG is that there is no uniform national crisis response, including emergency services. There`s not even a local formal emergency crisis response in most areas. In Australia, if something horrible happens, we`ve got mandatory reporting, we`ve got emergency services, we`ve got assistance, whatever happens, we`ve got people to call, either to report the incident or get some form of help. In PNG, there`s no response. There are police stations but most of them don`t have phones or petrol to get to people. So part of what we`re trying to do is develop a crisis response by setting up formal partnerships, for example, working with the police and safe houses and family support centres to try and organise different avenues of support for people and have formal guidelines in place.

How will the hotline help someone who decides to call?

What the telephone counsellors can provide is crisis counselling and referrals. So if someone calls and says, “I`m stuck, I’ve just been raped by my husband and he`s in the next room, what do I do?”, at the very least the counsellor can help them develop safety plans, provide immediate crisis counselling and refer them to a service provider closest to their location. We do have to be realistic about the services available. We`ve mapped out services in four target provinces so far and we work closely with safe houses such as Haus Ruth in Port Moresby

Where have the telephone counsellors come from?

We`ve actually partnered with the University of Papua New Guinea (UPNG) to take on graduates from their social work course. The five counsellors we`ve hired so far graduated in April and have since been undertaking a more specialised training program organised through ChildFund. For future graduates, we`re also working with UPNG to set up a counselling curriculum as part of the social work strand. This is completely new and will be the first formal accredited counselling course offered through the tertiary education system in Papua New Guinea. So this is massive!

What does the specialised training program involve?

The PNG Counsellors Association, which is a collection of local people in PNG who have qualified counselling experience, usually from Australia or Fiji €“ put together a nine-week course to teach basic counselling skills to our telephone counsellors. So we invited them to come and teach our counsellors as part of their three-month intensive training program. We also invited the Family and Sexual Violence Action Committee (FSVAC) to come in and educate the group about the context of gender-based violence in PNG. We`ve had FHI 360 come in to discuss gender diversity and the impact of family and sexual violence on people most at risk, particularly women and children. We`ve had Digicel come in to teach the staff about the phone systems. We`ve also had the CEO and the President of the management committee of Laurel House Tasmania Sexual Assault Support Service come over from Australia to teach the staff telephone crisis counselling, which is fantastic. It means our counsellors will actually be accredited with certificates in telephone crisis counselling, which is something they wouldn`t have had the opportunity to have otherwise.

The other part of the training is service visits to different sites €“ so every Wednesday for 12 weeks the counsellors have visited police stations, family support centres, safe houses, the Meri Seif Hotline, places like that, so they could get a real feel for what support is available for people in the National Capital District. It`s also a good way for these service providers to get to know the counsellors, as they will be referring their clients to us too.

Are the telephone counsellors all women?

Yes. Initially we`d had the plan of having all women because that is considered best practice for telephone counselling, especially in this field. If a traumatised women who has been raped by a man, or even a man who`s been raped by a man, hears a male voice on the other end of the phone, potentially they`ll just hang up. But we talked about it for a while and discussed, what if someone would prefer to speak to a man? So we wouldn`t be opposed to hiring a male but they wouldn`t be the intake person.

We`ve also recruited two senior counsellors and an operation coordinator for the centre. The role of the senior counsellors is to provide support and clinical supervision for the counsellors, which is really important. My concern about the telephone counsellors is that they`re not going to hear a lot of good. So my role will be to work with the senior counsellors to ensure the telephone counsellors have the best possible support provided for them.

How do you think people in PNG are going to respond to the hotline?

We had a meeting with some survivors at one of the safe houses €“ just sitting down and talking to those women, hearing their experiences. They were so excited about the idea of the hotline. We were talking about: “What do you think will be really positive about this? Is this a service you think people will use?” One of the women said she was kept inside her house for 12 years and wasn`t allowed out. She said that if she had seen the ad on TV for a hotline, if she had known there was a number she could call, she would have used that number.

What are some of the positive experiences you have had in PNG?

My colleague, Wesh,  is absolutely fabulous, we`re Team Gender! He`s amazing. We`ve teamed up on this whole project, which has been really good. The stuff he knows, I don`t know, and vice versa. So that`s been awesome. We`ve met some incredible, really strong advocates for women who have just been absolutely amazing. They`re willing to do whatever it takes to make the lives of women better.

The family violence hotline, called 1-TOK KAUNSELIN HELPIM LAIN, is a partnership between ChildFund Papua New Guinea, CIMC (FSVAC) and FHI 360, supported by the New Zealand Aid Programme, USAID, ChildFund New Zealand and ChildFund Australia. It is the first nationally available, toll-free counselling hotline in PNG offering crisis support to survivors of family and sexual violence.

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