Cathy Umba carries a camouflage-print backpack everywhere she goes. The mother of four can’t read or write, but a stack of papers inside the backpack are her shield — they’re proof that she has a court order protecting her from her ex-husband.
Umba, who puts her age near 42, got the court order last year, after her abusive husband tried to force her to return to him. “He hasn’t bothered me since,” she says in Tok Pisin, one of the major languages of the South Pacific nation of Papua New Guinea.
The journey to those documents was long. It took Umba almost 20 years to feel safe, and she couldn’t have done it without a network of volunteers working with survivors of domestic abuse in Port Moresby, the capital. Two out of three women in Papua New Guinea experience abuse at the hands of an intimate partner, according to aid groups and the World Health Organization. It’s one of the highest rates of domestic abuse in the world.
About 18 years ago, Umba visited a cousin in the city of Mount Hagen. Relatives of her cousin’s husband forced her into a marriage with a man she hardly knew. She was his fourth wife, she says.
“We did not have any relatives living there so I had no choice,” she said. “I could not defend myself.”
Years later, on a family trip to Port Moresby, she saw an opportunity to leave. The family did not have enough money for return tickets to Mount Hagen, so she offered to stay behind until her husband could send for her. Soon after, she met another man and began living with him.
When her husband returned to Port Moresby and tracked her down, he beat her.
“He used a bush knife to cut my hair,” she says, “and then he punched me here.”
She brushes her left cheekbone, below her eye.
He brought her to a busy shopping mall to buy the plane tickets back to the highlands. She managed to escape into the crowd and fled to a relative’s home. Her husband found her there, but she ran away again, this time to her sister’s house.
Her sister told her to find Linda Tule.
A network linked by word of mouth
Away from the traffic snarls of Port Moresby, Tule lives with her family in a small house under a mango tree. Kids play in a broken-down van out front. Tule’s day job is overseeing her neighborhood’s village court system, but home is where she volunteers and sees her clients: couples with marital problems, flight attendants with abusive husbands, moms with kids in tow.
When Umba arrived last year seeking help, Tule could tell the situation was dire.
“Because she has no formal education, because the man had already bribed a lot of policeman, she didn’t have anyone else to turn to,” Tule recalls.
In the middle of their meeting, Tule’s phone rang. Umba’s sisters were calling, letting her know police had arrived. The officers demanded that Umba go back to her husband.
“We told her to hide,” Tule says.
Then Tule rushed to the sister’s home, three miles away. When she got there, police “were screaming at the family, abusing them,” she recalls. “Just to get a woman, they came with a truckload of policemen, guns, [as if they’re] out to look for a wanted criminal or something.”
But Tule was prepared.
“I went and I showed them my I.D., this one here — and everything just neutralized,” she says. “The title says it all.”
“The first step I need to do is console her”
Tule’s title is “human rights defender” — coined in 2016 during a training session for volunteers in Papua New Guinea by the United Nations Development Program.
In the U.S., Tule’s role might be filled by volunteers and professionals at a domestic violence hotline or a drop-in shelter. In Papua New Guinea, a mainly agricultural country of about 8 million people, she’s part of a small network of volunteers in the capital running informal safe houses. Operating on a shoestring budget, the network has helped hundreds of women like Umba in the two years since that training session.
When Umba’s ex-husband tried to force Umba back home yet again last year, Tule made sure it would be the last time. Tule guided Umba through the process of obtaining papers from the village court that give her legal protection from her ex-husband. These are the papers Umba carries today.
With her U.N. training, Tule counsels survivors of domestic abuse, escorts them to shelters and connects them with a government case worker if they need more formal assistance. If a shelter isn’t available, she sometimes hosts survivors herself.
“In a week, I get four, maybe three cases from women,” Tule says, sitting on her porch. “The first step I need to do is console her and give her courage.”
“These are our family members that we’ve never met before”
The Family and Sexual Violence Action Committee Secretariat takes up half a floor at Port Moresby’s City Hall. There, Ruth Beriso coordinates the work of human rights defenders like Tule, who operate across several neighborhoods and informal settlements in the capital city.
Though 43 volunteers were trained in 2016 for the network, only 15 remain active, reporting cases and data about domestic violence to the secretariat. The work is unpaid and can be dangerous. Beriso worries about volunteers’ safety.
Her committee secretariat employees serve as caseworkers and drive unmarked vehicles to take survivors from their homes to shelters or medical services.
Even with relatively few volunteers, “With the system we’ve established, it’s very effective,” Beriso says. “We train them, they go back to the community … they live with these people, they know what their challenges are.”
In 2013, Papua New Guinea’s parliament passed the Family Protection Act, outlining penalties for domestic abusers, but enforcement has been spotty. Residents say it often depends on where victims live, which local court takes the case and personal connections.
Local police are sometimes unwilling to intervene or they demand payment for services. The Family Protection Act established specialized units to respond to cases of domestic or sexual violence, but Sgt. Job Eremugo, an acting coordinator for the Family and Sexual Violence Unit in Port Moresby, said there is no mechanism in place to ensure officers do not take bribes.
Having local advocates can make a big difference. Beyond the reach of their network in the capital, though, options for abuse survivors are limited.
Take Goroka, the capital of the Eastern Highlands province, one of the country’s major hot spots for violence against women. In one survey using standardized questions from the World Health Organization, 78 percent of female respondents said their husbands had physically assaulted them — one of the highest rates in the country.
But there are few shelters available for people escaping abuse. The main one in town requires payment of 100 kina, about $30, per week, forcing most of the people who stay to have a government or aid group sponsor their time there. Fewer than half its beds were filled in March.
Angela Kaupa, an advocate who lives just outside town, started taking in survivors herself, for free.
“And see how they sleep, you see,” says Kaupa, 54, peering through the doorway of a darkened outbuilding on her property one afternoon.
A small cross sits atop an altar against one wall, and blankets line the dirt floor. Seven to 10 people may sleep here at a time. Right now, she’s hosting a family of three.
“Sometimes people just show up themselves,” Kaupa says. “We normally say these are our family members that we’ve never met before.”
“How should we be helping others if we are not properly equipped?”
An extension cord from the main house provides some electricity; a garden in the center of the compound provides food. Many of the men, women and children who stay with Kaupa are escaping physical or sexual abuse or were displaced after being accused of sorcery.
Other times, people diagnosed with HIV come to her door, needing a place to stay while they see doctors at the hospital in Goroka — or because their families have thrown them out. Papua New Guinea has the highest incidence of HIV in the Pacific islands, according to UNAIDS, and Kaupa has become a vocal advocate for patients. After being diagnosed herself with HIV, she was among the country’s first to go on antiretroviral treatment.
But Kaupa says it’s a struggle to support her own four children and assorted relatives, much less others’. Though she attended the 2016 United Nations training program for the Port Moresby human rights defenders, there was no coordinated program or volunteer effort for her to join in the more remote highlands. She is largely operating on her own.
“We are exposing ourselves out to the general people that we are human rights defenders,” she says, “and then there’s nothing in place for us.”
Even at her compound, in a space she’s created to be safe, violence sometimes creeps in. A woman cries out from the other side of the compound and runs around the house, clutching the side of her head.
Kaupa hesitates, then explains. The woman is a relative who has just been “bashed” by her husband — hit with short, repeated strikes with an open or closed fist. It’s widely accepted as a form of spousal discipline, and condemned by human rights groups.
“Let’s let them continue,” Kaupa says. “Maybe they have their own problem.”
After a moment, she walks over to comfort the relative.
“You want to change the future, maybe your own future”
Back in Port Moresby, homes on stilts march from the sea up into the green hills, while glass and metal towers cluster in the government district by the harbor. Woven throughout are “settlements” — informal neighborhoods with homes built out of bush material, lumber and corrugated metal. When a lack of city planning meets human ingenuity in Papua New Guinea, this is the result.
The settlements are often pegged as the most dangerous part of the capital, run by the feared “raskol” criminal gangs wielding homemade guns. But if a human rights defender reports that there’s a survivor who needs to be picked up in a settlement, Ruth Beriso, the volunteer coordinator, is the one to get there, driving an old, white Honda she calls the “spaceship.”
Beriso’s motivation for putting her life on the line for domestic abuse survivors stems from some of her earliest memories. As a child, she watched her father violently abuse her mother.
One night, Beriso says, her father beat her mother so badly that he permanently damaged her mother’s spinal cord. From then on, her mother suffered seizures and a loss of mobility. Beriso and her sisters cared for their mother as best they could. And then they lost her.
“My mother… she died,” Beriso said slowly, eyes wetting with tears. “She was killed. My father hit her in the back, and she developed a nervous system breakdown.”
When her mother died, Beriso was 12 years old.
Today, human rights defenders are only the front line of the network Beriso is building along with specialized police forces, hospitals and shelters. When it works, it means that abuse survivors have someone to go to, in their own neighborhoods, who can confirm that what’s happening isn’t OK, and point to a better way forward.
“You know, you grow up in violent home, it makes you want to see things different,” she says. “You want to change the future — maybe your own future.”
Durrie Bouscaren (@durrieB) spent six weeks reporting in Papua New Guinea as NPR’s Above the Fray fellow. Additional reporting and translations were provided by Agnes Mek and Somu Nosi. The fellowship is sponsored by the John Alexander Project, which supports foreign reporting in undercovered parts of the world.