- From: The Australian
- June 29, 2013
THOSE who appear before magistrates Rhoda Geita, Rita Bray and Mege Baru must abide by three rules: no lawyers, no smoking and no chewing betel nut. These women are highly respected "chairlady" magistrates with Papua New Guinea's village courts, of which there are more than 1600 in the physically stunning but often lawless nation.
All grandmothers, they agree on one thing: "Female magistrates have to be tough." Baru, who has a don't-mess-with-me demeanour and faint traditional tattoos on her face and hands, reveals that angry defendants "do come and threaten me but I don't feel scared. I will threaten them back."
PNG women are among the world's most disempowered and abused, and a recent series of gruesome murders of women accused of witchcraft and sorcery has fed perceptions that gender violence is worsening. Despite this, the number of female magistrates in the country has exploded in recent years, partly because of training programs run by Australia's aid agency, AusAID.
In 2007, there were just 10 female village court magistrates in PNG; today, there are about 900. I met three veteran female magistrates in Port Moresby earlier this month while travelling to PNG as part of a delegation of Australian journalists sponsored by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Speaking through a translator, Baru - who speaks several tribal languages but no English - supports the PNG government's contentious reinstatement of the death penalty for crimes including murder and aggravated rape.
PNG's National Council of Women also supports the death penalty, viewing it as a remedy to gender violence. "This year, the raping and killing of women has increased, and we are wondering what has gone wrong," the council has said. Yet the revived law has been condemned by the UN and EU, which argue it won't discourage crime; Amnesty International calls it "barbaric".
In PNG, there are fears innocent people could end up being executed by a justice system that is often inconsistent and chaotic.
Baru is one of nine magistrates at the Erima Village Court in Port Moresby. She also works at a police station at the city's notorious Gordons market, a rundown, outdoor food hub where, she says, murders occur regularly.
In a country often riven by tribal fighting and payback-style disputes, village courts play an important role in maintaining community stability. Geita and Bray have listened to details of murder cases so that victims' families can be compensated and further violence avoided - the equivalent of Australian civil cases. These local courts - which may convene under a tree or on a beach - use mediation and fines to deal with other issues ranging from unpaid dowries and land disputes to assault, adultery, theft and the making of illegal brew.
Emboldened by the presence of female magistrates, a growing number of women are airing their grievances. Today, about 40 per cent of the claims brought to village courts are made by women. Geita and Bray tell Inquirer that male magistrates don't always take women's complaints seriously, and that "women come more openly to us if there is a woman on the court". On the other hand, these formidable court officials shake their heads gravely when discussing community conflict caused by "gossiping women"; they say such offenders can end up before local courts, accused of defamation.
Getting women a better deal in their own legal system is a key priority for AusAID. Women now account for about 8 per cent of magistrates in PNG, while PNG governments also have promoted women in the legal field: the country's chief magistrate, solicitor-general and chief ombudsman are women, and there are two female judges on the National Court.
Last month, Prime Minister Peter O'Neill officially apologised for the violence endured by his countrywomen and declared a national day of mourning. But such progress plays out against a backdrop of continuing, endemic violence. Studies quoted by the World Bank suggest more than half of PNG women have been raped, while two-thirds have suffered domestic violence. One AusAID study showed 100 per cent of surveyed Highlands women had suffered violence.
During my visit, a single edition of Port Moresby's Post-Courier newspaper carried stories about three disturbing crimes, all involving young women and girls. In one, a 19-year-old mother was burned with hot iron rods and left to die in the bush. The paper also reported on an escalating child sex trade in the capital.
A third article suggests an eye-for-an-eye philosophy still prevails in rural areas. This report said a teenage Highlands girl allegedly beheaded her father with a bush knife after he raped her. Local leaders agreed she should not be handed over to the police because her father deserved to die.
Such stories may suggest law and order has broken down. However, it also may be that in the era of the mobile phone and social media, violent crimes in isolated areas are likelier to be exposed. Certainly, Baru believes more people are making vexatious sorcery allegations, which usually target women and can lead to murder. In a sorcery killing in February, a 20-year-old woman accused of witchcraft was burned alive in a crowded market. Baru hopes that new, hefty fines for those who make false sorcery allegations will make a difference. So, too, should the recent repeal of the country's Sorcery Act, under which suspicions of sorcery were used as a defence in murder cases.
AusAID's emphasis on law and justice is part of a broader gender rights agenda in PNG. Australia is by far the country's biggest foreign aid donor, with an annual contribution of about $500 million.
Another pressing priority for the aid agency is tackling the country's maternity mortality rate, which is 80 times higher than Australia's. Australian funds are being used to train 1400 midwives, nurses and health workers, many of whom will take their skills to villages with no electricity or roads, let alone a decent hospital.
An important success story is the containment of a feared AIDs epidemic. Until 2009, it was predicted that HIV-AIDS would infect 5 per cent of the PNG population by 2015. But the national rate in 2010-11 was just 0.8 per cent. (The rate is just above 1 per cent in some Highlands provinces and in Port Moresby, and is substantially higher again in high-risk groups such as sex workers). Key to the overall containment, says one local expert, is the provision of anti-retroviral drugs - paid for by the PNG government - and effective treatment programs, many of them paid for by Australia. Australian-funded non-government organisations are treating almost half the PNG men, children and women - including pregnant women - known to be HIV positive.
Getting pregnant women on to treatment is crucial: if an HIV-positive mother-to-be starts drug therapy early during pregnancy, the risk of her transmitting the disease to her baby is less than 1 per cent. Last year, Australia paid for more than 31,000 pregnant women to be tested for the disease.
Despite such tangible outcomes, O'Neill has criticised Australia's aid program for not focusing more on infrastructure projects such as roads; PNG's roads are in a shocking state and there aren't enough of them. O'Neill has said: "We are spreading the development program too thinly. And although the program is very much appreciated, the effect of it has not been felt by the population of Papua New Guinea." AusAID head in PNG Stuart Schaefer rejects these criticisms. "This year Australia will spend $180 million, 37 per cent of our aid program, on infrastructure in PNG, including on road rehabilitation and maintenance, health centres and school facilities," he says. He adds that last month O'Neill and Julia Gillard agreed Australia would work with PNG to plan and cost infrastructure projects including a highway upgrade and hospital redevelopment.
But Schaefer is adamant "infrastructure is not the only priority for the aid program. To lift people out of poverty we also need to address better service delivery in the priority areas of education, health, and law and justice." He says Australia's HIV programs are saving lives and that other aid projects have "delivered real development results. For example in 2012, we supported the delivery of essential medicines to more than 2000 of PNG's hospitals, health centres and aid posts; the vaccination of over 500,000 children for measles and polio and over 1.2 million women for tetanus."
Then there is the growing cadre of female magistrates.
Geita says that years ago "it was very hard for women to open up about what had happened to them. These days, I think that things are getting better."
Baru agrees, observing: "Sometimes there are things that ladies can't share with men, and in these cases, it is helpful to have women magistrates."