WHY DON’T WE CARE?
Riding the train into Melbourne a couple of mornings ago, I check into Facebook and scroll through one of the Papua New Guinea discussion pages I visit most days.
I’m transported a long way from the Glen Waverley line, deep into the wild, random cyberstream of plugged-in PNG – gossip, news, activism and (frequently) prayers from a country that has become something of a fascination.
Around Kooyong, a dark-skinned young woman materializes in my palm. There’s something wrong with her face – her eyes, wide open, are too far apart, is she disfigured? I look closer.
Her head has been sliced open, a deep, pink gash running from the brow down to the chin – maybe with an axe, maybe with the full force of a bushknife (machete), the bushcraft accessory carried by every man and boy in the highlands.
Is she alive? No. She’s swathed in a pinkish shroud, turned down to take this photograph. Who would take such a picture, I wonder, and send it out to the world? Her killer – to gloat? Her mother or sister or father – to scream their protest?
The images in this story are from a photo essay on violence against women in PNG, “Crying Meri” by Vlad Sokhin. Warning. They are extremely confronting, but we at The Hoopla believe they should be seen, accompanied by their devastating stories.
Someone posts a demand to the site administrator to pull the image down.
The administrator insists it must stay – it is the reality of the violence being endured by women in PNG – the clamor for action is now dominating local social media conversation. The gang rape of a nurse in Lae has shut down the hospital and provoked sits-ins and street marches.
It’s true that the “chopping”, to use the local vernacular, of the woman now before me is no rare, random horror. Something like this happens to women in some parts of PNG every day, perhaps many times a day. I’d seen the fallout in hospitals in Tari and Kundiawa, Goroka and Minj. I’d sat in on morning triage, observed the casualties of the night before display their broken and butchered limbs and heads.
I’d written the story often enough, SOS messages tossed into the void. I’d come to the conclusion that many Australians aren’t much interested in PNG, our closest neighbour.
Certainly that’s the assumption of many editors and gatekeepers across the media. The most widely reported issues out of PNG turn on self-interest (think Manus Island, and its use as an Australian detention facility) and profiteering (the resources boom). The business pages are loaded with stories about PNG’s prospects, tempered by what is shorthanded as political or social “volatility” or some such nuisance, rarely explored or explained.
When a plane crashed at Kokoda airstrip in 2009, killing 13 people including 9 Australians, Channel 9’s morning show did a live cross to a PNG official, at one point reprimanding him for the appalling state of the bush runway – it was endangering the lives of tourists. Papua New Guineans take their lives in their hands on those pot-holed strips and crater-strewn roads and makeshift bridges every day because infrastructure is in terminal decline – not least because of the weight of the convoys commuting to and from mine sites.
Still on transport, on 2 February 2012 a heavily overloaded, unseaworthy ferry (as determined by a Commission of Inquiry) operated by an Australian-born shipping magnate set out from the island port of Rabaul en route to the mainland in appalling weather.
At least 140 people drowned, but the real toll of the Rabaul Queen will never be known. Many of the dead were babies not listed on the scrappy passenger manifest, and schoolchildren and women who couldn’t escape the inner cabin when she capsized. They’d been jammed in so tight they had to take turns sitting down. Lifejackets were locked in cages.
But the shipwreck dominating Australian news was still the Costa Concordia, the luxury vessel that foundered on the Italian coast three weeks earlier (32 lives lost).
I thought when Alan Jones made his infamous “destroy the joint” remark it might finally put the spotlight on the reality endured by our Pacific sisters – some of the most brutalized, marginalized, neglected (and resourceful, and spirited) citizens in the world – given that his slur was prompted by an announcement by Julia Gillard that Australia would invest $320 million over 10 years to “expand women’s leadership and economic and social opportunities”.
The Pacific has the lowest rate of female political participation in the world. There was one woman in the PNG Parliament until last year, and she was white (the extraordinary Queensland-born Dame Carol Kidu). Now there are 3 PNG women MPs – in a chamber of 111.
But the frenzy became all about us.
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