Women in Papua New Guinea (PNG) live with some of the highest rates of domestic violence in the world outside of war zones, according to bodies such as Médecins Sans Frontières. Both government and NGO efforts have sought to address this state of affairs with a host of “referral pathways” that attempt to channel women seeking help through the law enforcement and courts systems, with the implicit or explicit aim of putting perpetrators in jail and enabling women to divorce abusive husbands.
Research with women's community groups in the peri-urban settlements of Lae, PNG's second city and economic engine room, paints a different picture of both domestic violence and its potential solutions. Where such violence is conceived as including everything from a refusal to support children to marital abandonment, the legal system is regarded as belonging to a regime of subtracting or rupturing relationships and potentially causing further violence. Many of the groups in our research seek instead to embed women in new relationships of mutual support, regardless of the state of a marriage, in order to create forms of life and livelihood in the city that legal solutions cannot offer.
Dr Melissa Demian is Senior Lecturer and Head of Department in the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. She is the author most recently of In Memory of Times to Come: Ironies of History in Southeastern Papua New Guinea (Berghahn, 2021) and has also published widely on topics including customary law, legal history and development, urbanisation and gender in Papua New Guinea.