Australia to address PNG's shocking record of violence against women

10 May 2013

Prime Minister Julia Gillard is currently visiting Papua New Guinea for the first time on the job, with the issue of gender-based violence on the agenda during her meetings with PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill.

Papua New Guinea is struggling with significant rates of violence against women, something highlighted during the Prime Minister's opening address. She mentioned violence against women as a particular concern, citing the need to support women "who endure such particular horrors".

According to UN Women, Papua New Guinean women face among the highest levels of violence in the world. Almost three in four women between the ages of 15 and 49 have experienced some kind of physical of sexual abuse.

Julie McKay, Executive Director at UN Women Australia, believes it is critical Australia continues to support women in Papua New Guinea. "The Australian community needs to think about the aid budget as critical to our national agenda, not just nice to have in good times," says McKay. "Just because you're born here or in Papua New Guinea or Afghanistan, it shouldn't mean that your life is chartered on a certain course. If we accept and believe in our rights and privileges here in Australia, we also need to know this comes with obligations to support and invest fundamental human rights."

PNG woman are also battling with poor maternal health support and low political participation. According to a 2010 report by the World Health Organisation, the maternal death rate is high and was increasing, indicating a decreased access to healthcare. Only 40% of births take place in healthcare facilities. Women have a life expectancy of 63 years, and men 58.7.

The report also found that the high incidence of sexual assault was spreading sexually transmitted diseases, with AIDS-related deaths being the leading cause of death in Port Moresby hospitals.

Australian concern about gender violence in Papua New Guinea is not new. It was the main fundraising and advocacy focus for the 2013 International Women's Day events ran by UN Women.

In August 2012, Gillard announced $320 million in funding for a 10-year initiative to empower Papua New Guinean women to engage in political and social decision making at national and local levels. According to AusAID, the share of parliament ratio (female to male) is 0.009.

In 2012/2013, Australia will give $493.2 million in aid to Papua New Guinea. In 2011, the Papua New Guinea Australia Partnership for Development was launched, with a focus on measurable progress towards creating a "safe, secure and stable environment for all citizens, visitors, communities and businesses to conduct their affairs freely".

This includes a range of programs to combat corruption, gender inequality, family and sexual violence. The programs are rebuilding the professional police service, strengthening court and dispute resolution services and increased community cooperation around reintegration and deterrence.

With the May budget less than a week away, McKay is concerned about the Government limiting aid funding. Beyond the human rights issue, there is also a strong economic case for the development and empowerment of women.

"Australia and New Zealand are the major aid donors to the Pacific region. As Australian citizens we need to recognise these women are our nearest neighbours, and some of the greatest human rights violation of our times are happening so close to us," says McKay. "Economically, if we're living and operating in a stronger region where more people can participate in the workforce, there are huge economic benefits. We have a lot of companies working there, making a lot of money and bringing investment. So we have an obligation, and an opportunity to share knowledge and understanding both ways."

Rose Powell

Rose Powell is a journalist with Women's Agenda sister publication StartUpSmart.

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