Crying Meri: Violence Against Women in Papua New Guinea

PORT MORESBY - Russian born photographer Vlad Sokhin has been documenting the results of this violence against women since 2012 through a project called “Crying Meri.” (Meri is Pidgin for women.) He shares his portraits of the victims and shares their stories, as they were told to him.

These figures out of PNG are all too familiar. A string of particularly violent sorcery-related crimes (where a woman is raped, killed or maimed after being thought to be a witch) and gang-rapes earlier this year, caused an outcry from the international community. In February, a 20-year-old mother was stripped, tortured, and set on fire after being accused of witchcraft, reports AFP. In April, an elderly woman was beheaded for the same reason.

The United Nations spoke out against these attacks, urging  the government in PNG to take action. Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, Rashida Manjoo visited the country and “reported alarming incidents of violence perpetrated against persons accused of sorcery and witchcraft, with women being affected disproportionally, particularly widows or other women with no family to protect them,” according to the UN.

In May, Prime Minister Peter O’Neill publicly apologized to victims of sexual and domestic violence and vowed to repeal the 1971 Sorcery Act, which criminalized sorcery and made it a defense in murder cases, reported the NY Times.  The act was repealed last week, allowing sorcery-related killings to be treated as murders under the law. While this is a huge win for human rights activists, many in the international community were disheartened that parliament also reinstated the death penalty, unused since 1954. Rape, robbery and murder are now crimes that can draw a death sentence, according to the NY Times.

“These are very tough penalties, but they reflect the seriousness of the nature of the crimes and the demand by the community for parliament to act,” said Daniel Korimbao, a spokesman for the prime minister.

Some activists fear that this may lead to more murders of rape victims, in attempts at leaving no trail of evidence. Jeffrey Buchanan from UN Women in PNG says there is concern that the death penalty “may push sorcery and witchcraft related attacks back behind the veil of silence,” reports ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation).  “I have concerns about woman who are raped that … [it] may lead to their murder,” he said.

“Papua New Guinea has taken one step forward in protecting women from violence by repealing the Sorcery Act, but several giant steps back by moving closer to executions,” said Isabelle Arradon, Amnesty’s deputy director for the Asia-Pacific.

Sokhin, the photographer, is currently participating in a three-day conference at The Australian National University in Canberra. He said he is presenting his research and photographs to other academics from varied backgrounds including law, anthropology, gender and human rights, as well as policy-makers, legal officers, human rights activists, members of church organizations and non-governmental organizations from the Pacific Islands region. The hope is to engage in constructive dialogue to develop practical and workable solutions to the negative societal issues posed by belief in sorcery and witchcraft, and particularly the problem of  sorcery and witchcraft-related killings.

“The reintroduction of the death penalty was a simplistic response to a very complex problem,” Richard Eves, an Australian anthropologist who specializes in PNG, told TIME. “There are more than 800 different cultures in PNG, and belief in sorcery is pervasive across most of them.”  According to TIME, Eves hopes that, at the conference, they can develop more sophisticated alternatives for helping to stop the sorcery-related violence. [ABCNews/VladSokhin]
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