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Thursday 12 December 2013

Asaro Mud Men and Hand Grenades - Louise Ewington

As we rounded the corner I heard a shout, and saw a warrior stalking towards us. He carried a knife, and slowly but deliberately moved in our direction. He loped up the hill, threatening and gesturing, accompanied by two small boys. Covered from head to toe in mud and wearing a fearsome mask, I recognised him immediately as an Asaro Mud Man. This was our welcome to the village.

The legend goes that a tribe from Asaro, Simbu Province, Papua New Guinea, was engaged in a vicious battle with a warring tribe. Recognising that they were losing ground and therefore losing the battle they retreated to the river and hid. The water level was low and so they covered themselves in mud, hoping that it would provide them with some camouflage. As their enemy approached they stood up to fight; a last stand for the honour of their people.

Forgetting that they were covered in mud they didn't anticipate the reaction that they got. The mud had turned their normally dark brown skin a dusty grey. Terrified, the enemy thought them to be ghosts and fled, leaving the Asaro Mudmen as the victors in battle.

It's the sort of story that everyone loves; the underdog coming through to defeat its enemy. We are constantly bombarded with these kinds of stories in books and movies. But tribal warfare in PNG isn't some fictional tale which you can suspend disbelief to enjoy, and then switch off and walk away from. It is a brutal reality in many areas, particularly in the Highlands.  The pride and honour which the Asaro mud men were fighting for still exists, but in many cases it doesn't have the bloodless ending that this legend depicts. 

As we were driving recently along the Daulo pass we saw a crowd gathering. There was a palpable tension in the air. Towards us came groups of men, carrying bush knives and shouting. Unsure what had caused the trouble or whether it might escalate, everyone in the vehicle suddenly went very quiet. We recognised the risk of being caught up in tribal warfare and it wasn't a glamorous Hollywood fiction.  They were real emotions, real weapons, and therefore represented real danger.

After we had passed I asked what they had been shouting, hoping to get some sense of what had triggered the tension.  "They were warning the crowd that there would be fighting." Julie said. I was confused. So why was the crowd just sitting there then? Why weren't they running in fear of their lives, or at the very least making themselves scarce?  "Those people sitting and watching probably weren't from either tribe" Julie explained. "So they won't be part of any fighting."

In this area at least, those from tribes not involved in the fighting will often watch, albeit from a safe distance.  I grimaced, thinking about being a voluntary spectator to that kind of violence, as enemies took bush knives and axes to each other. But I was wrong. Very wrong.                 
It's not about enjoying violence, and nor is it some twisted spectacle. It is a sort of informally formalised system to ensure that the rules are followed. Although to an outsider the violence may look wanton and indiscriminate, it is often highly structured. Those not involved can act as independent witnesses. They can give evidence as to how each tribe behaved during the battle at any subsequent village court hearing. They might act as mediators after the event.  In effect it is a kind of bush version of the UN.  Most importantly though they will remove from the fighting and care for warriors who are wounded in battle.  We think about international warfare as being regulated by rules of engagement and international law, and often tribal fighting is no different.  We may not understand the structure of it or the rules that those tribes employ, but that isn’t to say that they don’t exist.
Ok, so there will no doubt be a request for compensation where they have helped or saved a wounded tribesman. But people also know that if they are involved in tribal warfare themselves, there may be a tribe watching who can do the same for them.


Of course, as with any war, the fact that there are 'rules of engagement' doesn't mean that serious injuries or death are not likely consequences. Julie described to me being a 7 year old huddled in her house along with the women and other children as they heard the battle that their tribesmen were fighting getting closer and closer to the village.   
Fortunately for her, their tribesmen were able to push the enemy back which saved their land and their people. I asked her what would have happened if they had breached through the defences and got to the village. "They would have taken any young girls that they wanted to marry back with them" she said, "And anyone else, well, you know..." I did. The possibility that those women and children might have been raped, tortured, or murdered didn't need articulating. I knew what she meant.

"Fortunately", she added "that doesn't happen so much anymore". What she had described to me was the last time her tribe had been involved in a battle. There has been 25 years of peace since then for that community.  However, for some communities that is not the case. Memories run deep, and emotions run high. Barely concealed tensions bubble beneath the surface of day to day transactions and tenuous amnesties.

Recently near Mount Hagen, Western Highlands Province, several people reportedly lost their lives after two grenade attacks on the Kambia clan, allegedly by the Wambea clan. James Apa Gumano of The National Newspaper wrote on 14 November 2013:  “A team of police officers left Mendi yesterday for the remote area where members of the Kambia and Wambea clans have been fighting each other.  Kambia clan member Jacob Walega said yesterday more than 2,000 members of the tribe had left their villages to seek shelter among neighbouring tribes in Kagua-Erave electorate...Walega said that the Kambia people were conducting a mass burial on Tuesday morning for the 34 people killed in a grenade attack on Mondat at Karex village when they were attacked again.”

Guns are not uncommon in PNG, but it is understood that this is the first time munitions of that nature have been used in tribal warfare.  So whilst many communities are working towards peace, the violence between others may escalate as payback ensues. The use of weapons such as grenades is a worrying development but not entirely unsurprising. PNG has a border with Indonesia which is almost impossible to secure, and the illegal importing of weapons is rife. 

Moreover it follows an attitude which is commonplace among some in PNG. As Martyn Namorong, the award winning PNG Blogger puts it: "The rage and venom that ensues is thus disproportional. That is the nature of all disproportional violence in PNG, from wife beating to large ethnic conflagrations triggered by small incidents of bag snatching. It has to be disproportional in order to show the other party that 'mi em man tru na yu no man' [I'm an ace; you're just a waste of space]."    

But where will it end? How can a grenade attack be topped? What will be next?
Picture by Vlad Sohkin

Imposing external military style interventions won’t change deeply embedded social norms that underpin tribal warfare.  But respecting local culture and working with partners from within, overiods can have an impact.  Importantly that includes working at many different levels, and with many different groups, including traditional leaders, women’s networks, community based organisations, individuals, the judicial system, and the police. 
However, it is important that this issue is also tackled at International level.  During the negotiations for the UN Arms Trade Treaty which was passed earlier this year, His Excellency Mr Robert Aisi, the Ambassador and Permanent Representative of PNG to the UN reported: 
“For Papua New Guinea, we have and continue to support the inclusion of small arms and light weapons in a final arms trade treaty…Papua New Guinea has experienced the effects of illegal use of small arms and light weapons. The proliferation of these weapons pose serious challenges to the effective maintenance of law and order, development aspirations and our national security.” 
In recognising this I sincerely hope that the PNG Government ratifies the Arms Trade Treaty as soon as possible.


What should also be recognised is that whilst there are still challenges to be faced, there are many communities in PNG (like Julie’s) which realise that violence spawns nothing but violence, and are working towards building more peaceful and secure futures. They recognise the value of conflict resolution and know that in some situations the bigger man walks away rather than turning to fight.
I feel privileged to work with a number of communities for whom that is the case. Guided by inspirational leadership and a shared common understanding of the divisive nature of tribal warfare, those communities have recognised for themselves that a collaborative and non-violent future is of infinitely more benefit to their tribes, than a never ending cycle of brutal violence and payback. 
I just hope that the sort of inspirational attitude gains momentum before the arms battle escalates further.  Building a more peaceful future for the people of PNG, whilst also respecting importance of tribal identity and celebrating the rich cultural heritage within those communities, is a critical step on PNG's journey.  That is a future worth fighting for, but in a respectful, peaceful and non-violent way!

Louise Ewington

Sunday 3 November 2013

Sorcery Killings and Prosthetic Solutions - Louise Ewington

For the last week I have been on a field trip to visit. I returned yesterday muddy, sweaty, and utterly exhausted but so incredible inspired by the people I had met and proud of the partnerships which we have developed.
Each community that we visited was so beautifully distinct. 

Every village had its own personality, challenges, traditions, and accomplishments. 

At each stop we were greeted with a traditional welcome and smiles which could light up the night sky. 

 However, I want to begin by returning to the topic of violence against women (and in particular sorcery related violence) and sharing the stories of two women (Mama Rasta and Mori) who I was privileged to spend some time with yesterday. 
While taking part in the panel discussions about Sorcery Related Violence at the PNG Human Rights Film Festival, I was struck by just deeply held the belief in sorcery still is in PNG.  Although sitting with an audience which was, for the most part, sympathetic to human rights and well educated, I couldn’t help but feel that even the most rational and logical thinking is often by-passed when the discussion turns to sorcery.

We discussed the fact that a lack of education and understanding of basic science doesn’t help to assuage the almost immediate assumption that an unexplained illness or death is sorcery related.  We discussed the Government’s reclassification of sorcery related killing as wilful murder, and its reintroduction of the death penalty.  We discussed the evidential difficulties in ‘proving’ that a person has been involved in black magic and how the legal justice system is ill-equipped to deal with these sorts of cases.  We discussed the difficulties in engaging the police to investigate violence against those accused of sorcery (either because the police agree with the beliefs of the perpetrator, are prepared to accept a bribe to release the perpetrator, or because they haven’t paid by the victim to investigate the case in the first place).  We discussed how sorcery accusations were often used as a convenient way to remove a rival, to payback a grievance, as part of a land dispute, or simply as jealousy led vengeance.  We discussed the fact that many attacks are carried out by gangs of youths (possibly being dictated to behind the scenes by an older or more powerful leader in some sort of mob-style hit).

However, throughout all of those discussions the bottom line was that the belief in sorcery is endemic within PNG society.  Moreover, it fuels such fear that the mere accusation is enough to destroy a reputation and put that person in danger for the remainder of their life.  Personally, I am not a ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’ person.  I don’t buy into, say, Christianity any more than I do witchcraft.  I put them in the same box and equally have no place for them in my life.  But I know many people who are religious and who would defend their faith to the hilt no matter what I said about my perception of the rationality of those beliefs.  And that’s precisely the point. 

Religious beliefs are as much based on blind faith as sorcery is.  It isn’t something that can be explained epistemologically, nor reasoned as being evidence based.  However, it is something that people genuinely and wholeheartedly believe. For me the right to freedom of opinion and expression is as important as the right not to be subjected to violence.  I wouldn’t criticise or reject a person’s right to believe in whatever they choose.  However, where there is science based evidence which disproves a belief, that should be advanced and the belief challenged.  Education is a major part of that.  However, even where a rational or scientific explanation exists, sorcery will still often be cited as the cause of a death or illness and the purported sorcerer subjected to torture in order to force a confession and then brutally killed or punished.  That is a just outcome as far as the accusers are concerned.
Those who are working within PNG to tackle Sorcery Related Violence are some of the bravest women and men I have ever met in my life.  I am constantly inspired by their commitment to tackle the vicious, irrational, and senseless violence which usually follows an accusation of sorcery. 

They are reaching and striving for a society in which women are not the butt of every male frustration.  They have a vision of a world where women do not simply accept the role of punching bag or expect to be a recipient of sexual violence. They are continually questioning and trying to figure out just how the communities in which they live have been degraded to such an extent that brutal violence and sexual assault has been normalised. 

They are also acutely aware of the daily risk that they are placed in when dealing with such cases. How protecting and standing up for the victim automatically puts them in the spotlight and significantly increases the chance of their becoming a victim of violence themselves.  I cannot commend enough these incredible women nor praise their selfless pledge to continue fighting for the women that they are supporting.  Most of these women are volunteers. They don’t benefit in any way from doing this work, but they are passionate about the need to do so.

The remainder of this post is dedicated simply to the sort of situations which these Human Rights Defenders are dealing with every day (my grateful thanks to Vlad Sokhin for allowing me to republish some of the incredible photographs from his ‘Crying Meri’ exhibition along with their accompanying captions). These stories are not unique in PNG.  Only last week, for instance, a 5 year old girl was gang raped in at Gerehu, Stage 6, in Port Moresby after being kidnapped by the group of 5 men and 1 women.  Violence, torture, brutal killings, sorcery accusations, and sexual attacks are daily occurrences for women in PNG.  But the majority of these criminal abuses will go unreported and unchallenged. Those women instead will suffer in silence, just hoping to get through a week or even day without being attacked again. 

So I want to thank those women who have stood up against this violence; who have shared their stories in the hope that others will not have to suffer as they have if they speak out.  I also want to thank those women who put their own lives on the line every day to tackle these injustices, care for the victims, and challenge the perpetrators.  They are all she-roes and voices of conscience for the people of PNG.

 Vlad Sokhin
Mutilated hands of Rasta (around 60 years old) who was accused of being a sorcerer by people from her village after the death of a young man in 2003.  During the funeral, attended by all the villagers, the crowd surrounded Rasta and began to beat her severely, strangling her with a rope and wielding axes, bush knives and wooden sticks. Rasta managed to escape and ran into her house, where she was caught by one of the attackers.  He tried to cut off Rasta’s head with a bush knife, but she managed to protect herself with her arm, which was immediately chopped off.  Rasta managed to survive that day, but had to leave the village for good.  Her husband later received 600 kina from the village elders for the damage to his wife.  However, Rasta never received the money given to her husband and had to seek help from her relatives in her home village of Kudjip (Jiwaka Province), where she now lives.
I was thrilled to meet up with Mama Rasta the day after she received her first prosthetic arm – ten years after the attack.  Her spirit and spark is incredible given what she has been through.
Mori (not her real name) is around 24 years old.  She has a 9 year old daughter Tara.  When Tara was only a few months old Mori tried to divorce Tara’s father.  While she was in the garden picking coffee Mori’s husband attacked her with a bush knife.  He tried to cut off her head but missed, instead severing her arm and then slashing at her Achilles tendon. 
 Vlad Sokhin
Five months pregnant, Doring (23) was brutally attacked by her husband and expelled from her house early in the morning.  Doring’s drunken husband assaulted her, kicking her in the abdomen and repeatedly striking her face against the wall.  During the ultrasound the doctors did not hear the heartbeat of the unborn baby.
Vlad Sokhin
Melinda (13) receiving treatment at the Port Moresby General Hospital after being raped by her 43 year old stepfather, who burned her skin with a hot metal bar, forcing his step-daughter to remove her clothing.  Melinda’s mother is afraid to report her husband to the police out of fear of his revenge.  Melinda is scared to return home, but would have to do so to continue her schooling.
Vlad Sokhin
Richard (45) shows the disfigured ear of his wife Agita (32) in the Morobe block of Mort Moresby.  In December 2010 after coming home drunk Richard took a bush knife and cut off half Agita’s left ear.  He spent one night in the police station and was released the next morning due to ‘insufficient evidence’ to initiate criminal proceedings.  Agita’s relatives did not allow her to leave Richard, having received 500kina compensation from him for the ‘potential damage’.
Vlad Sohkin
A doctor of the Antenatal Clinic in Port Moresby examines the genitals of 14 year old Freda who was raped on 17 January 2012 by a 40 year old lawyer.  Freda said the man was a friend of her family so she didn’t suspect anything when he offered her a lift to the market.  However, he instead drove Freda to his house, raped her and then left her on the road of a settlement.  Freda’s father brought his daughter to the hospital but wasn’t sure whether he wanted to sue the rapist.

Vlad Sohkin

Banil (16) came to the Antenatal Clinic of Port Moresby after having been sexually assaulted by her ex-boyfriend.  The day after their separation, her former partner came to her parents’ house and threateneding her with a knife, dragged Banil to a bush area.  There he beat her and raped her.  Banil’s father managed to find his daughter laying unconscious on the ground and brought her to the hospital.

Vlad Sohkin
 Helen (40), mother of seven children.  On 27 December 2011 she was attacked by a ‘cannibal’ near the Boroko police station, in central Port Moresby.  The attacker bit off Helen’s lower lip and tried to sink his teeth into her throat.  She managed to escape by kicking her assailant in his testicles and biting three of his fingers, forcing him to release her.  Police arrested the man and found that this was his third attempt to eat human flesh.  After spending three days in the hospital, Helen went to the Police Station in initiate criminal proceedings against the ‘cannibal’, but discovered that he had been released due to lack of complainants.  Helen is still waiting for the hospital’s approval to start surgery for a skin graft on her missing lip.
Vlad Sohkin
A PNG man (39) is waiting for his court trial in his prison cell, having been accused of multiple rapes, Port Moresby, Boroko Police Station.

Louise Ewington

Wednesday 16 October 2013

Oxfam puts human rights at the heart of all its work.  It believes that where people are treated with dignity, where human rights are respected, and where communities are empowered to become active citizens in civil society, poverty can be relieved and resilient communities established which can better deal themselves with 'shocks'.  Its work speaks for itself, so why not take a few minutes to watch some of its 3 minutes videos profiling some of the communities Oxfam is working with and the impact that work is having on those communities.

Pigs, Dancing, and Clean Water:  An Oxfam Story

See how the remote village of Sandaun in East Sepik, Papua New Guinea celebrated the completion of a clean water system built by Oxfam.

Growing a Better Future in PNG: Part 1

GROW is Oxfam’s global campaign to create a more sustainable food system. See how Oxfam’s work in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea is helping local villagers create a more reliable food supply.

Growing a Better Future in PNG:  Part 2

GROW is Oxfam’s global campaign to create a more sustainable food system. In this short documentary we follow local villagers as they better manage their forest resources.

Meet Our Partners:  Episode 1 - Gender Justice - Crisis Centres

There is an epidemic of violence against women in PNG.   60% of women have been raped and 75% have experienced gender based violence. Meet the people at the front-line who are helping victims get justice and start a new life. 

Meet Our Partners:  Episode 2 - Eco Justice - Turubu Eco Forestry

PNG has some of the world’s best high-value forests but these are under threat from illegal logging. Meet the organisation that is standing up to the companies involved.

Meet Our Partners:  Episode 3- Gender Justice at Lifeline

Meet the people at Lifeline in Port Moresby who help victims of sexual assault and violence rebuild their lives.

Meet Our Partners:  Episode 4

Meet Our Partners:  Episode 5 - Samaritan Aviation

Take a 3 minute trip along the Sepik River as we deliver emergency supplies and save lives inside the only sea plane in Papua New Guinea.  Oxfam helps fund the only water airplane in Papua New Guinea.  Last year, Samaritan Aviation delivered over 20,000 kg’s of medical supplies to remote communities.

Eliminating Violence Against Women

Oxfam's Eliminating Violence Against Women Programme provides crisis care, counselling and support for victims of sexual and domestic violence through a number of local partners.  Take a look inside a domestic violence shelter in Port Moresby - the crime-ridden capital of Papua New Guinea.

For more information about our work listen to these short radio interviews about PNG’s epidemic of violence against women.http://www.rnzi.com/pages/news.php?op=read&id=78464

Humanitarian Relief

On World Humanitarian Day - August 19th - Oxfam looked back at the impact of a devastating flood on the Sepik River earlier this year and its response.

Sorcery Related Killings

You may have thought that the killing of women accused of ‘witchcraft’ ended in the 1600s. Think again. Sorcery-related killings are on the rise in Papua New Guinea. Oxfam is one of the only INGO's in the world specifically helping women in life threatening situations who have been accused of sorcery.

Louise Ewington

Tuesday 15 October 2013

Papua New Guinea Human Rights Film Festival

Tomorrow I will be opening the PNG Human Rights Film Festival in Port Moresby.  It is a wonderful celebration of the journalists and film makers who have placed human rights firmly on the agenda of their own work, and a reflection on the human rights abuses taking place in PNG and around the world. 

This is my opening speech:

"The author Ellen J Barrier once said:  “We are not going to always agree with each other, but we should have the dignity to always respect each other’s freedom of speech and of choice. Democracy is practiced when we have respect for human rights.”

As a Director of Amnesty International UK and the Papua New Guinea Country Director for Oxfam I feel hugely privileged to have been given the opportunity of addressing you at the opening of the 2013 Papua New Guinea Human Rights Film Festival.  Having grown up on Bougainville Island I am also extremely excited to be back living and working in PNG.

I am hugely proud of the work which Oxfam does in PNG in defending human rights, in finding lasting solutions to relieving poverty, and in tackling injustice.  Oxfam is unusual amongst International NGO’s in that it works exclusively through partners at grassroots level rather than implementing programmes directly.  We and our partners are striving to achieve a vision of a safer, fairer, more sustainable world where all people can enjoy a life of hope and opportunity. We believe we can all play a part in fighting poverty and promoting human rights; each and every one of us can do something to make a difference.

Throughout all of our programmes we ensure that human rights is a driving focus.  Whether it is providing safe, clean water and sanitation facilities through our WASH programme, helping communities to build sustainable futures through our Livelihood programmes, promoting peace in the Highlands of PNG, or supporting women who have been subjected to sexual and/or domestic violence through our Eliminating Violence Against Women programme.

In June of this year I attended the 2013 Amnesty International Annual Media Awards at the British Film Institute in London.  The event has become an internationally renowned event recognising excellence in human rights reporting and acknowledging journalism's significant contribution to raising public awareness of human rights issues.  I was absolutely delighted to see that one of the finalists for the photojournalism category was an exhibition which first came to prominence at the PNG Human Rights Festival last year[1].  That exposure emphasises the importance of this festival and recognises the impact that visual and oral storytelling can have in tackling human rights abuses.

Papua New Guinea has a strong tradition of storytelling; it is in the blood of every Papua New Guinean.  The cultural diversity for which PNG is famed throughout the world is strengthened by its commitment to preserving the stories passed down from generation to generation. 

The rise of technology represents a unique opportunity to share those stories around the world.  To give a voice to those whose voice has been trammelled.  To stand for those who are unable, for whatever reason, to stand up for themselves. 

However, that work must be undertaken with integrity.  It is not about chasing the most controversial story, but about operating with conviction and in a way which promotes and respects the dignity of the individual.  The features, documentaries, photographs and stories you will see, hear and read over the next few days have been chosen because they represent the highest standards of journalistic integrity whilst also pushing forward the agenda of universal human rights.

As the Universal Declaration of Human Rights sets out:  “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” [2]  We are extremely fortunate that in PNG those rights are enshrined within the Constitution, and that we are able to gather together and share our stories.  In some countries the organisation of an event like this would be brutally repressed.

In fact the PNG Constitution[3] is unique in that it contains almost all the rights and freedoms enshrined in the UN Charter[4] and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights[5].  Moreover, PNG has ratified 5 of the core Human Rights Treaties; the third highest number in the Pacific.  The PNG Government’s commitment to the principle of Human Rights is therefore clear.  However, still PNG does not have its own Human Rights Commission.  I would therefore like to take this opportunity today to urge Prime Minister O’Neill to reaffirm this Government’s commitment to establishing a Human Rights Commission for PNG, and to forge ahead with putting the draft Bill through Parliament.  To show the world that ‘human rights’ is truly at the heart of PNG’s political system, and that it is a priority for the Honourable Members representing the people of Papua New Guinea.

Maya Angelou the Civil Rights Activist once said:  “How important it is for us to recognise and celebrate our heroes and she-roes.”  I want to thank all of the exhibitors who have used their considerable talents in finding ways to creatively tackle human rights abuses.  Without them this festival would not be possible and the world would not be as rich a place.

However, for me the true heroes and she-roes are the subjects of these documentaries and exhibitions.  The individual men, women, and children who in allowing themselves to be filmed, photographed and recorded have given us the gift of themselves and their stories.  We have a responsibility to cherish those stories and to use them in a positive way to advance the cause of human rights.

I am also thrilled to launch this evening a new Oxfam initiative to support the Human Rights Defenders Network in the Highlands.  These brave women are working tirelessly to bring justice to victims of violence and to build a more secure and peaceful Highlands region.  This new initiative will fund the core work of three community-based organisations so that they can extend their work in providing relief to victims, negotiating peace treaties between communities in conflict, and undertaking community outreach and awareness.  We are proud to be partnering with Voice for Change, Kup Women for Peace, and the Kafe Women’s Association to take this work forward.  A particular focus of this new work will be on combating sorcery-related violence and you will note that this issue features as a key theme in this year’s Festival.

I will leave you by commending those individuals and groups who have given so generously, sometimes at great personal risk to themselves.  I will also ask that you stand and join me in a round of applause to recognise the bravery of those individuals, and to celebrate those human rights defenders who cannot be here with us today."


Louise Ewington

Sunday 13 October 2013

Because You're A Girl

Today is International Day of the Girl and should be a celebration of those young ladies who will become the women of tomorrow; agents of change who can lead the world towards societies free of gender-based violence (GBV). Societies where gender doesn't dictate whether you receive an education, and where the fact of your sex doesn't determine the opportunities with which you are presented. 

However, two weeks into my time here in PNG I keep being brought back to the realities which overshadow life for girls here and in many other parts of the world. 


Here are the stories of some of the girls that I have met.

Dyane and Jacinta: The price of education
Some years ago I spoke to a hugely impressive young lady, called Dyane* who was the first girl in her remote, rural community to graduate from vocational training in a particularly male dominated field.  Despite personal tragedy after her young husband was brutally murdered, Dyane went on to commercial success and was able, because of her skills, to independently support herself and her son from the income she earned as a result of her training. 

She explained to me that she felt as though she was one of the lucky ones.  Her parents had supported and encouraged her ambitions, despite and in spite of, her gender.  One of seven children her two brothers had died at an early age.  Her parents’ aspirations for their children had been transferred to her and her sisters.  Her younger sister, Jacinta*, was also enrolled in the same course that Dyane had taken; the only girl, but the top of the class.


I asked her about what was preventing other girls from following in the footsteps of her and her sister.  She explained to me that in her community the girls and boys were not encouraged to interact, and as a result the girls had very little confidence being around boys and men. She said that she wanted to be a role model for other girls, and felt that encouraging girls into vocational training was vital to, as she put it, ‘redressing the gender imbalance in education’.  I was utterly inspired by her. Her strength, her conviction, and her sassiness abounded.  She had succeeded and wanted to share that success with other women.

I found out later that Dyane had paid a high price for her education.  The manager of the school had been abusing girls and boys in his care (including Dyane) for many years.  Despite a police investigation the community refused to cooperate. The perpetrator was protected by political, religious, and community leaders who didn’t want to lose out on the financial benefits which they received from having him present.  Dyane was required to sacrifice herself in order to liberate herself.  Without her education she wouldn’t have been able to live independently and earn her own income.  However, she had to endure the most horrendous violations in order to finish that education.
Amanda:  Cursed
Amanda* sits quietly gazing down at the bilum which holds her most precious possession; her four month old son. She is around 17 years old and has been married, she thinks, for about 3 years. She has nothing else left after accusations of sorcery drove her from her village.  She has been abandoned by her own family, her friends, and her husband.  It began, she explains, after her elderly mother-in-law became ill.  Amanda was charged with caring for her but she would frequently find the old lady covered in bruises which she couldn’t explain.

Instead she would be blamed and every bruise would result in a vicious beating for Amanda.  Sometimes she would return from the market to find the old lady collapsed on the floor.  Sometimes the old lady would fly into a rage, lashing out, or hitting herself.  Amanda tried to stop her, to calm her down but she didn’t know how.  She was scared.  She asked for help, but it only resulted in more beatings and that was when the accusations began.

Everything has changed since you arrived. She was fine before I married you’, her husband sneered.  ‘You can’t even produce a child – what a waste of bride price’, he taunted.  ‘I think you are the problem.  You must have put a curse on her’, he accused.  And that was that.  Her fate was sealed.  Whispers began, rumours circulated, people began to move away when she approached.  She knew what was coming.

Some months, and many more beatings later, the change in the old lady became more extreme.  The right hand side of her face started to sag.  Her speech became slurred, and she couldn’t walk without assistance.  Amanda’s husband decided to take his mother to the hospital, but she died on the way.  He tortured and beat Amanda into unconsciousness, and left her on the side of the road. The last words which Amanda heard before she passed out revealed that she could never return to her home without putting her own life in danger:  ‘You killed my mother, you witch.  I hope you die and if you don’t I will make sure you do if you ever come back to the village’, he spat.  When she came around her left eye was swollen shut. Her back and legs had been gashed with a bush knife.  He had beaten her with a metal pole, and raped her as she lay unconscious. 
Picture by Vlad Sohkin
Despite the circumstances of his conception her little boy means the world to her. He is everything she has.  She found out later than her Mother-in-Law had been suffering from dementia and died of a massive stroke.  Her ex-husband still says that Amanda killed her through sorcery.

Name Unknown:  A childhood betrayed
I don’t know this little girl’s story.  What I do know is this.  She is around 10 or 11 years old and, at a guess, about 7 months pregnant.  She lives in the Casamance Region of Senegal in West Africa. 

I don’t know the circumstances of her pregnancy, but what I do know is this:

·         Despite her age she may already be married (40% of girls are married under the age of 18) or she may have been raped outside of marriage (the age of consent is 16 but spousal rape is not recognised by many Senegalese communities). 

·         The statistical likelihood is that she will have experienced FGM (female genital mutilation) or female circumcision, along with over 90% of the women in South Senegal.  

·         It is unlikely that she is or will become literate (only 33% of women in Senegal are).

·        Maternal and prenatal health issues are significantly enhanced during child pregnancy, as well as the risk of pregnancy and birth related complications which can lead to lifelong health issues or death (370 women in every 100,000 will die in childbirth). 
There are hundreds of thousands of these stories all over the world.  People who are subjugated, tortured, abused, raped, denied access to health and education, or forced into effective slavery simply because a turn of fate, a single chromosome, determined that they would be a girl rather than a boy. 

So yes, let’s celebrate the achievements of girls.  The lucky ones who are educated enough to succeed, or are privileged enough to live in a society which respects and expects gender equity.
But let’s not forget those that struggle every day because of their sex. I hope that these stories make you angry.  I hope that you are inspired by the injustice of it.  And I hope that you will support some of the fabulous work which is being done by amazing organisations which stand up for girls and give them a voice in worlds which are trying to silence them.

* Names changed to preserve identity.  Photos used for visual purposes only.  Unless otherwise stated they do not relate to the particular ladies referred to.

Louise Ewington