‘Of course we love our wives, but we want our wives to listen to us’: Discussing Gender-Based Violence in Papua New Guinea

Holly Penfold is a first year International Relations student in London. She seeks to find respect for all people, regardless of origin or identity, and hopes be proactive in continuing to close the gaps in equality between genders in the years to come.


The country of Papua New Guinea (PNG) is becoming known as a place of extreme gender-based violence, with 70% of women being raped in their life time (Pearlman, J). Social anthropology – the study of the development of cultures in society – is being used as a key tool to understand how these “epidemic levels of abuse” (Kulick, D.) have come to be. It begs the question, with so much research being conducted on the issue, why is this “humanitarian emergency” taking place (A Comprehensive Response to Family and Sexual Violence is Critical, 2013)? 

Despite 49% of the population being female, PNG has a significant cultural gap between the male and female genders. From a young age, children are socialised “not only to expect violence, but to accept violence” (Jolly, M., 2012) and this is taught through traditional myths as well as through behaviour demonstrated by the older generations. This particularly aligns with the taught convention of hierarchy, which conveys adults are higher in society than children; and men are higher than women. According to a 2012 UN study, 83% of men from PNG interviewed admitted to – at some time – raping their partner and another woman, who they weren’t in a relationship with. Even more, 78% of these non-partner rapes occurred with multiple other perpetrators (i.e. in the context of gang rape). In this study, PNG had by far the highest levels of men admitting to rape of a partner or non-partner out of all the nine locations studied (Jewkes, R. et al, 2012). This just demonstrates why anthropological research has concluded violence is a conventional, “normal,” part of Papua New Guinea’s collective practice (Jolly, M., 2012), despite violence being a largely rejected practice in the eyes of the West.

In an interview taken from the documentary “World’s Most Dangerous Cities: Port Moresby,” journalist Ben Zand found that the number of times one particular woman had been raped by her partner was not answerable by quantity but instead in saying “almost all my life” (BBC). In interviewing one of the perpetrators of this sexual violence – a member of the ‘Thirteen Casino Raskol gang’ – Zand asked “Do you [the gang members] love your wives?” to which the response was “Yes, of course we love our wives, but we want our wives to listen to us. Not to do things on their own.” The gang’s spokesman also expressed that a standard initiation task for prospective members is to participate in a gang rape. The laid back, relaxed, posture of the speaker is shocking, as his body language reflects  the mundanity of the topic physical and sexual violence in PNG culture.

 PNG spans across an impressive six hundred islands, and it’s estimated that no more than a thousand people speak any one language (world bank). However, their geography therefore makes resources difficult to distribute. Though the large number of languages portrays PNG’s culture-rich heart, it also makes mass communication campaigns difficult between key government or development agencies and the populations they serve. With inadequate electricity, telecommunications, and transport infrastructure, the building of healthcare facilities for those affected by Gender-Based Violence is an immense challenge in itself.


There is hope amongst this tragedy. Medicins Sans Frontières argue that these barriers can be overcome using provincial-scale development plans, which will speed up the process of extending sustainable help to PNG communities. It has also been suggested that every hospital in the country (due to the size of the problem) should have a Family Support Centre. These Family Support Centres should provide emergency medical treatment to the injured and should also implement long-term programmes for individuals to help them to mentally recover from the traumas experienced.

Given than PNG is – broadly-speaking – a Christian country, one action plan suggested involves working in small groups of men in a Christian setting. The idea is that the small groups of men will create a modelling culture in which violent men are inspired by the men leading the small groups and choose to change their violent behaviour. An additional aspect of this is working to interpret Christian principles of gender equality, and to “espouse the values of submissive domestic wives” as an “alternative voice to be heard in Christianity” (Jolly, M., p. 32).

 Furthermore, influential organisations including Amnesty International, the International Women’s Development Agency, and Medicins Sans Frontieres have been acting over the last two decades to fight against gender based violence in PNG. To quantify the extent of aid needed to provide for victims of violence in PNG, Medicins Sans Frontieres reported treating 18,000 survivors of Family and Sexual Violence across PNG in the five-year period from 2007-2013 (A Comprehensive Response to Family and Sexual Violence is Critical, 2013)?.

 Unfortunately, they confidently state their patients represent only “a fraction” of those affected. This strongly supports the argument that, though help is being provided in the fight against gender-based violence in PNG, more assistance is needed for both prevention and treatment. It’s good news to hear the Australian Government has brought the focus of its foreign aid back to the Indo-Pacific region (Australia’s Aid Program, 2018), as this means Papua New Guinea might stand a chance at receiving the funding it requires to make necessary infrastructural changes that will make its people – families – in need easier to reach.

 It’s important not to forget that the source of this problem is not in a lack of infrastructural development and funding, but in the heart of PNG gender culture itself. If young boys were not taught they were superior to the girls in their primary school class, the culture of gender inequality would be weakened. If the concept of masculinity both in PNG and around the world was not so intertwined with themes of violence and physical dominance, then rape and domestic violence would no longer be an everyday norm in PNG society. What PNG needs, in order to keep its women and children safe, is a cultural revolution. An awakening of human morality that will require the abandonment of traditional thought and identity. And this is precisely why, for the time being, the issue of gender-based violence in PNG cannot be eliminated, only managed to the best of our human ability.


A Comprehensive Response to Family and Sexual Violence is Critical (2013). Available at: https://www.msf.org/papua-new-guinea-comprehensive-response-family-and-sexual-violence-critical [Accessed: October 6 2018]

Australia’s Aid Program (2018) [online] Available at: https://dfat.gov.au/about-us/publications/Pages/aid-programming-guide.aspx [Accessed: October 12 2018]

Epidemic of Family Violence in PNG Requires a Coordinated Response (2013). Available at: oahttps://www.msf.org/epidemic-family-violence-png-requires-coordinated-response [Accessed: October 6 2018]

Jewkes, R. et al (2012) Prevalence of and Factors Associated with Non-Partner Rape Perpetration: findings from the UN Multi-country Cross-sectional Study on Men and Violence in Asia and the Pacific. United Nations. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/ S2214-109X(13)70069-X [Accessed: October 16 2018]

Jolly, M. (2012). Introduction – Engendering Violence in Papua New Guinea: Persons, Power, and Perilous Transformations. Australia: ANU Press, p. 3-5 & 32

Kulick, D. (2017) Rape in a Papua New Guinean village: talk, sense and nonsense. Universitetet I Oslo. Available at: https://www.sv.uio.no/sai/english/research/news-and-events/events/sai-department-seminar/2017/september-27-kulick.html [Accessed: October 6 2018)

Papua New Guinea Events of 2016 (2016) Available at: https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2017/country-chapters/papua-new-guinea [Accessed October 3 2018]  

Papua New Guinea Population. (2018). Available at: http://worldpopulationreview.com/countries/papua-new-guinea/ [Accessed October 12 2018]

Pearlman, J. (2016) Why 70 per cent of Papua New Guinea’s Women Will Be Raped in Their Lifetime. The Telegraph, [online]. Available at: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/life/why-70-per-cent-of-papua-new-guineas-women-will-be-raped-in-thei/ [Accessed: October 3 2018]

The world’s most dangerous cities: Port Moresby (2018). London: British Broadcasting Company.


Image references:

Man with gun:

“CRYING MERI”: VLAD SOKHIN DOCUMENTS VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN IN PAPUA NEW GUINEA (2012) . [online] Available at: https://www.w4.org/en/wowwire/crying-meri-vlad-sokhin-violence-against-women-papua-new-guinea/ [Accessed: October 16 2018]

Woman being bandaged:

Return to Abuser: New MSF report reveals cycle of abuse for survivors of family and sexual violence in Papua New Guinea. (2018) [online] Available at: http://www.doctorswithoutborders.ca/article/return-abuser-new-msf-report-reveals-cycle-abuse-survivors-family-and-sexual-violence-papua [Accessed: October 16 2018]

Survivor’s face:

Woldetsadik, M. (2014). Domestic Violence as a Way of Life: The Reality for Papua New Guinea’s Women. [The RAND Blog] RAND Corporation. Available at: https://www.rand.org/blog/2014/12/domestic-violence-as-a-way-of-life-the-reality-for.html [Accessed: October 16 2018]

Arms around each other:

ADDRESSING VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN IN PAPUA NEW GUINEA NEEDS HOLISTIC RESPONSES (2016) International WOmen’s Development Agency. Available At: https://iwda.org.au/addressing-violence-against-women-in-papua-new-guinea-needs-holistic-responses/ [Accessed: October 16 2018]


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