Stories

My experience as an Australian aid volunteer living in PNG

Papua New Guinea is a surprising place. It is a land of untamed, rugged beauty with warm and friendly people. It can also be a violent and confronting place to live and work.

I am constantly reminded of the incredibly dichotomy of life here: the generosity of spirit contrasted with incredible acts of hate, extreme poverty and affluence existing side by side, a passive acceptance of life coupled with destructive violence.

I have been welcomed by colleagues and rural villagers, and been thanked by people on the street for making an effort to understand PNG and its diverse, complex cultures. I have run the streets as part of the Trukai Olympic Day Fun Run surrounded by 30,000 people. I am working among amazing, life-charged Papua New Guineans who are working to make a difference in their country, and succeeding.

Yet there also exists a darker side to PNG life. To truly understand this, you need to spend some time here, speaking to the locals and seeing the world through their eyes.

Life in Port Moresby is hard. It is an expensive place to live and often unsafe on the streets. People arrive here from other provinces hoping to find work and a better life, yet many find only hardship that traps them here and perpetuates the poverty cycle. Rent for even basic accommodation can run upwards of $250 per week to $2,000 per week in expat areas. Bearing in mind minimum wage is less than $1 per hour and even professionals often take home only $125 per week. Desperation often drives desperate acts, from pickpocketing to armed robbery and car-jacking.

Security dominates everything. It is tighter for expats, who generally live in razor-wire surrounded compounds, moving about in safe areas of the city and often with an escort. These advantages are not available to average Papua New Guineans, who have to navigate the crowded streets, markets and public buses in a heightened state of alert.

I get regular security advice from many of my PNG colleagues, who advise on where it is safe for me to visit, how I should dress in certain situations and how to act in a culturally appropriate manner. And I find it exhausting. Constantly being alert to changes in the behaviour of people on the street, monitoring and scanning to detect potential threats and being mentally prepared for what I will do in a multitude of different scenarios. Will I run? Can I fight back? What if there is a weapon involved?

But security precautions cannot shield me from what I have witnessed on the street. A woman’s bruised face, a female settler living nearby being hit and not being able to help her, accounts of female Papua New Guinean friends being followed by a car when returning to the office from lunch. These same friends won’t travel on buses without a male escort and often aren’t willing to take their children shopping for fear of being harassed. Perhaps most heartbreaking of all was hearing the story of a four-year old girl who was sexually assaulted. These are but a few examples of what many women and children face daily.

 

Heather Thomas (bottom, centre) spent the past year based in Port Moresby

Living in Port Moresby as an aid volunteer has certainly altered my perspective of threat and violence. In Canberra, I never felt unsafe walking down the street to grab the paper, or worried that I would be assaulted on the way to work. Such events were far from mind, rarely seriously considered, but if such an extreme incident were to occur, I know my rights and where I could get help. Here, many women do not know their rights, and men often do not understand that violence towards women is not ok.

Australian statistics show that almost one in three women will be assaulted in their lifetime. In PNG, data is harder to come by, but based on anecdotal evidence, women who have not experienced violence, physical or sexual, are in the minority.

What is most devastating is the impact of violence on children. Even if they are not direct victims themselves, they will see their mothers or sisters assaulted, carrying trauma and fear with them. A lack of basic services to help deal with violence, including access to a place of safety, justice, medical assistance and counselling, affects children disproportionately.

Reporting violence often only occurs in extreme cases. Mostly, daily suffering is borne silently. Often witnesses are too frightened to step in and assist, afraid for their own safety if they do or unwilling to get involved in “family business”. With men generally the primary breadwinners, pressure even comes from families to stay with violent men.

People here are so aware of how their country is portrayed in the Australian media, particularly around the issue of violence against women, and are pained by the image. Many passionate, dedicated Papua New Guineans are working hard to dispel it and make a difference in their communities.

With support from the Australian public, ChildFund is working with communities to improve support services for those affected by violence, and with men, women and young people to provide education around women`s and children`s rights. Amidst the challenges and complexity, this kind of work provides hope and positive action that we can all support and share in. I say no to violence against women and children, and I challenge you all to do the same.

Heather Thomas spent the past year based in Port Moresby working as an Australian Youth Ambassador for Development (AYAD) volunteer with ChildFund Papua New Guinea. Learn more about the issue of violence against women and children in PNG.

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