The Sexual Politics of Rape and Domestic Violence in Papua New Guinea

Alarmed by increased violence against women, in 1982 the Papua New Guinea government—in an unprecedented move for a developing country—directed its Law Reform Commission to investigate domestic violence. Resulting publications revealed that a majority of Papua New Guinean wives have been hit by their husbands, most more than once a year, with urban wives suffering a higher level of violence than rural women (Toft, 1985, 1986a, 1986b; Toft & Bonnell, 1985; Zimmer-Tamakoshi, 2001). Papua New Guinea has a reported rape rate of 45 rapes per 100,000 persons, similar to the U.S. rate of 35 per 100,000 persons (Dinnen, 1993; Herman, 1984), although this is less systematically researched. Many of the rapes, counted as single incidents in police reports, were committed by gangs. Like everywhere else, rapes go unreported, especially those committed by victims' partners or relatives (Dinnen, 1996; Finkelhor & Yllo, 1985; Russell & Bolen, 2000; Toft, 1985,1986a; Zimmer, 1990). While traditional attitudes contribute to the acceptance of violence, research shows that the pressures of development and inequality fuel violence against women. Men in town fear their wives' potential independence and their own uncertain situations. Urban life-styles, including alcohol abuse and reduced social support networks, adversely affect male-female relations. Increased eroticism and the breakdown of old taboos place unfamiliar demands on couples (Bradley, 1994; Rosi & Zimmer-Tamakoshi, 1993). In several publications (Rosi & Zimmer-Tamakoshi, 1993; Zimmer-Tamakoshi, 1993,1995, 2001), I have explored a political dimension in order to understand better violence against women in Papua New Guinea and elsewhere in the Pacific. While individuals experience the dislocations of change and development, sex and class politics also fuel sexual and domestic violence. In Papua New Guinea, only a small number of men and women enjoy an elite life-style. With the male leadership under pressure from the grassroots to bring about an economic miracle, elite women are targets of disaffection from both the lower classes and men in their own class. Educated women have opportunities for expression and independence not shared by the grassroots and often rivaling their male peers. Violence against women is rife among the elite, and is partly motivated by class and sexual tensions that paint elite females as symbols of all that is wrong with today's society. In a weak state such as Papua New Guinea, men who want to can assert their dominance over women with little fear of resistance as long as there is widespread envy or fear of those women, and state officials charged with protecting them are unable or unwilling to do so. Rape and domestic violence are not traditional in every New Guinea society

(Goodale, 1980), but gang rape and mutilation of women's genitals were ways men "used to" punish errant wives and daughters (Zimmer, 1990; Zimmer-Tamakoshi, 2001), and attacks against the enemies' women in warfare were common. In some areas, men's cults celebrated masculinity and new entrants with the sexual abuse of widows and other women without male protection (Bradley, 1985). Gang rape and the achievement of manhood have been linked not only in New Guinea (Herdt, 1982) but in many cultural contexts such as crack dealers in New York City (Bourgois, 2001) and the world over (Gilmore, 1990). Today, initiates into Papua New Guinea's urban raskol gangs replicate such attacks in gang rapes, the most prestigious being the rape of women of European descent or their Papua New Guinean analogs—elite women. While violence against women occurs throughout Papua New Guinea, the intersection of elite and urban sexual politics with nationalist and class interests and rhetoric targets women of privilege. Holding elite and educated women— men universiti—responsible for all that is wrong is a political maneuver to ease class and ethnic tensions in Papua New Guinea's culturally diverse society and a satisfying fiction for Papua New Guineans who feel left out of "progress" and "development." Unlike their male counterparts, who come from all parts of the nation, Papua New Guinea's small class of elite women come from coastal and island areas that have been long involved with the outside world. Elite women are more likely than their male peers to come from educated and economically privileged backgrounds, and are, as a group, more western in demeanor and appearance than most Papua New Guinean women. Increasing the distance between elite men and women, some elite women have married foreigners or foregone marriage to avoid the violence that mars many Papua New Guinean unions. Examples include two of the three women ever to sit as members of National Parliament and a former president of the National Council of Women. Elite women's marriage to expatriates embarrasses male leaders as most Papua New Guineans see them as signs of elite immorality and elite men's inability to control their women. Attempts to limit elite women's freedoms include public censure, violence, the refusal of citizenship rights to foreign spouses, and threats to disenfranchise the children of mixed marriages. Although, in the mid-1980s, a male-dominated government supported the Law Reform Commission studies and a public awareness campaign on violence against women, politicians soon lost interest as economic and other issues pushed to the forefront of public concern. The shift was brutally apparent in 1987 when an all-male Parliament booed lawyer Rose Kekedo and other women from the floor when they tried to present the Law Reform Commission's interim report on domestic violence. Women's groups continue to wage the campaign against violence against women, but victories have been few. Female leaders throughout the Pacific are beginning to realize that half the battle is to get other women to join them in the fight. Vanuatu poet Grace Mera Molisa spoke for women throughout the region in "Delightful acquiescence" (Molisa, 1989, p. 24):

Half of Vanuatu is still colonized by her self.

Any woman showing promise is clouted into acquiescence.

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