Ending violence against women in PNG is a must

Commitment and action to end violence against women in Papua New Guinea is a must – not an option

Last month Papua New Guinea hit the headlines with stories of a woman accused of sorcery burned alive. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, was “deeply disturbed” by reports of the torture and killing of the 20-year-old woman in Mount Hagen, Papua New Guinea on 6 February. According to reports, Ms Kepari Leniata was burned alive by relatives of a six year old boy, who accused her of using sorcery to kill him. Attempts by law enforcement officials to intervene failed. The High Commissioner expressed her “great concern that this case adds to the growing pattern of vigilante attacks and killings of persons accused of sorcery in Papua New Guinea”.

This case concerned Papua New Guinea, but it could have happened in other parts of the Pacific region where beliefs in sorcery and witchcraft are part of some local cultures.

While international and national attention was much welcomed, it came too late to save the life of Ms. Leniata. This case was only one of those occurring on a regular basis. Ms. Leniata was stripped naked, beaten, cut, trussed and doused with petrol, thrown on a rubbish tip, covered with tyres and then burned to death while crowds were watching. This and other similar cases of killings are murder and must be treated as such according to national law.

The international and national media coverage of Ms. Liniata’s case, together with calls by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the international community to bring perpetrators to justice and the Prime Minister’s condemnation of the killing as despicable and barbaric, led to action by police and the arrest of the alleged perpetrators.

During the official country visit of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences to Papua New Guinea in March 2012, the Rapporteur received alarming reports of violence against women accused of being sorcerers. She noted the lack of action to address the phenomenon and that perpetrators act in impunity.

Among the recommendations by the Rapporteur were calls for more action to address sorcery- related violence, protect women from brutal assaults such as rape, torture, mutilation and murder, bring perpetrators to justice and redress victims. She reiterated that the responsibility to prevent and protect women against violence, provide remedies for victims, and punish the perpetrators is primarily an obligation of the State. The Rapporteur emphasized the need for holistic solutions to address both the individual needs of women, and the social, economic and cultural barriers that affect the lives of all women. The report on her findings will be presented to the UN Human Rights Council in June 2013.

In 2011 OHCHR Regional Office for the Pacific helped establish the Papua New Guinea Women’s Human Rights Defenders Network to support women to access justice when facing sorcery-related, gender based or domestic violence. The network also assists survivors to access medical care and safety. OHCHR also supported women human rights defenders to enhance their skills and expertise in monitoring and documenting cases of human rights violations. It separately commissioned a study on sorcery-related violence in Papua New Guinea to raise awareness on the issue.

These efforts contribute towards a greater understanding of human rights obligations and action on the part of various stakeholders to end sorcery-related violence in Papua New Guinea, and hopefully the broader Pacific region.

To mark International Women’s Day, OHCHR takes the opportunity to reiterate that the States have the primary obligation to eliminate all forms of violence against women as part of implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. In his context Governments should take urgent measures to: 1) prevent sorcery-related violence through education and awareness raising; 2) address sorcery-related crimes through legislation and policy frameworks; 3) provide protection to victims and witnesses of sorcery related violence; 4) investigate, charge and prosecute perpetrators; and 5) provide medical and psychosocial treatment, and remedies for the victims.

OHCHR welcomes the prompt response of the Government of Papua New Guinea in the case of Ms. Leniata where law enforcement officials investigated and arrested the alleged perpetrators. We urge that such due diligence is followed in other cases as well. We acknowledge the work of the Constitutional Law Reform Commission on this issue and reiterate our call to the Government to speed up the process of repealing the Sorcery Act (1971), and to seriously address sorcery-related violence as part of the existing criminal justice system i.e. as crimes of murder, grievous bodily harm and rape.

OHCHR takes note of the government’s recent commitment to the Global Campaign to end violence against women and girls which, translated into action, could significantly advance the rights of women and girls in Papua New Guinea.

OHCHR leads global human rights efforts and works to promote and protect the human rights that are guaranteed under international law and stipulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948.

OHCHR is headed by the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanethem Pillay, who co-ordinates human rights activities throughout the UN System and works closely with the Human Rights Council.

OHCHR Regional Pacific office covers 16 countries: Australia, Cook Islands, Fiji, Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, New Zealand, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.

For more information on OHCHR Regional Pacific visit http://pacific.ohchr.org

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