World

PNG women suffering awful violence on Australia's doorstep

In the early evening on Friday, a woman arrived at hospital, bloody stumps instead of fingers on her right hand, her left hand all but severed.

"Chop wounds" is the medical term used by the doctors and nurses in remote Papua New Guinea - and for this woman the injury was the horrible consequence of her father attacking her with a machete.

Irish nurse Aoife Ni Mhurchu treats a patient last year at Tari Hospital in the highlands region of Papua New Guinea. ...
Irish nurse Aoife Ni Mhurchu treats a patient last year at Tari Hospital in the highlands region of Papua New Guinea. The woman sought treatment for lacerations after her husband cut her with a knife on the back of her head and both hands. Photo: Jodi Bieber/MSF

"We still don't know if we've succeeded in saving her hand," said Aoife Ni Mhurchu, an Irish nurse who was called in to help for the two hour emergency surgery after the woman arrived at the Tari hospital in the southern highlands region.

Violence is a cruel fact of life for many women in PNG, with a recent report estimating almost two-thirds of local women suffer physical or sexual violence in their lifetime.

The Family Support Centre in Tari in the Highlands region of Papua New Guinea.
The Family Support Centre in Tari in the Highlands region of Papua New Guinea. Photo: Jodi Bieber/MSF

"This is not an isolated crime at all," said Ms Ni Mhurchu. "It's very common."

Common, and sadly, often repeated against the same victim.

Medecins Sans Frontieres, the medical charity that supports the Family Support Centre linked to the hospital in Tari, released graphic report on Tuesday showing victims and their children regularly suffer from a pattern of violence, with few chances for formal help.

The hospital in Tari and another facility supported by the charity in the PNG capital Port Moresby has treated more than 1460 women beaten by their partners in the past two years, with one in five judged to suffer major injuries.

Another patient receives treatment at the MSF-run Hospital in Tari, after her husband attacked her. In PNG, disturbing ...
Another patient receives treatment at the MSF-run Hospital in Tari, after her husband attacked her. In PNG, disturbing levels of family and sexual violence are directed towards women and children. Photo: Jodi Bieber/MSF

"A variety of weapons, including sticks, knives, machetes, whips and blunt objects were used to inflict these injuries," the report said.

Ms Ni Mhurchu told Fairfax Media the 28-year-old woman brought by her sister to Tari hospital on Friday had fled her abusive husband through the bush, back to her home village with her two young children.

But the woman's father was enraged when she arrived home, shouting he could not feed three extra mouths or afford to repay the "bride price" to her husband.

He then hacked her with what is known as a bush knife.

A "bride price" in the patriarchal society is paid by one village to another in exchange for marriage, and Ms Ni Mhurchu said it was often a substantial sum, on average 15,000 kina ($6900) and four pigs, highly prized in rural PNG.

"The situation is she will now most likely have to return to her abusive husband with these horrific injuries," Ms Ni Mhurchu said.

But the woman had toiled as a subsistence farmer, so her fate was far from certain.

The report described women as often "double victims", suffering first from brutal attacks and then failures in the protection system.

Five of the six safe houses set up for women to escape family violence are in the capital, away from the often isolated provinces.

The report said PNG health authorities had taken significant steps to address family violence, which includes 2013 laws for family protection.

But Ms Ni Mhurchu said there was still little enforcement and called on neighbouring Australia and other international aid donors to respond to endemic violence.

"It is a matter of urgency and it shouldn't be tolerated or ignored any longer," she said.

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