In Port Moresby 87% of women report that they have been assaulted or sexually assaulted on buses in the last year. Mothers are keeping their daughters home from school because the risk of sexual assault on the way to school is too high. Companies are reluctant to hire women because their likelihood of getting assaulted on the way to or from work is too high.
Dr Jeff Buchanan, UN Women’s PNG Country Manager is in Australia this week sharing the stories of women in PNG and the work of UN Women. Yesterday, I had the privilege of spending the day with Dr Buchanan, and I asked him – what’s next? What is the next thing we need to do to empower women in PNG? The answer – provide safe buses. UN Women is working to develop a model of ‘safe buses’ which will enable women and children to move around Port Moresby without the fear of violence.
Some of you will say that this is a band aid solution, that women shouldn’t need safe buses. I agree with you but it is a step. Being able to provide women a safe way to move around, means they are able to work – to earn money for their families. Providing safe buses means that women can send their children to school – safely. This is something all of us want for our children.
Dr Buchanan knows that UN Women will need to play the long game in PNG. Working to change male attitudes towards women and challenging the traditional gender roles is well underway – but this work takes time. While this work goes on, an overwhelming majority of women are being assaulted or sexually assaulted on buses. Fear is preventing women from earning money and the cycle of poverty is continuing.
Belief in witchcraft and sorcery is widespread in all provinces in PNG. If there is an unexplained death in a community, it is assumed that someone has cast a spell on the person who has died. This year, a woman was tortured and burned alive because she was accused of being a witch – just before International Women’s Day. In a country where 45% of women remain illiterate, communities lack a bio medical understanding of health and illness, meaning that deaths from cancer, HIV/Aids and other diseases are often assumed to be the work of witches.
At the closest point, there are 3.7kms between Australia and PNG. Girls born less than 5kms away from our shores are born into one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a woman. Towards the end of the day when I was feeling overwhelmed by the scale of the problems faced by women in PNG, I asked Dr Buchanan why he did what he did. His response was this: ‘Because they are our neighbours’. Full stop. End of story. For Jeff Buchanan, a man who has dedicated his life to development and challenging attitudes, it’s as simple as that.
If you, like I, got on public transport this week, without thinking about whether you would get stabbed, robbed or sexually assaulted, please consider supporting UN Women to deliver this same freedom to women in PNG. Your contributions will be directed towards the Safe Buses program which we are hoping to be able to fund by January. Dr Buchanan is speaking at an event at the National Library this evening in Canberra, and we hope to send him home with an announcement of funds for the Safe Buses Program. If you are in Canberra tonight and would like to attend, please email [email protected] for details.