PNG's appalling record on women revealed at the United Nations

Papua New Guinea--one of the few countries in the world where women's life expectancy is lower than men's--ratified a major United Nations women's rights treaty in 1995, but then proceeded to miss four deadlines for reporting on its compliance with key provisions.

When the delegation from the half-island nation in the southwest Pacific appeared in New York in late July it turned out to be the first encounter with the review committee on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, CEDAW. The committee was reviewing status reports from six other countries during its 46th session from July 12-30.

The meeting was housed in the temporary home of the U.N. headquarters, located on New York City's East River, during a remodel of the main U.N. building.

Seated on a raised platform in the large conference room, Carol Kidu, the chairwoman of the Papua New Guinea delegation, and Naéla Gabr, the CEDAW committee chairwoman, faced the 23 members of the CEDAW committee. First the committee read questions aloud, after which the delegation chair responded. Then the floor was turned over to 15 delegates representing various branches of the Papua New Guinea civil service, who delivered their responses.

A key concern of committee members was what the government was doing to stop the murders of women accused of sorcery and witchcraft.

"Research is being done on the emergence of killings of so-called witches and on the sudden increase of identifying women at the village level as witches and killing them," Kidu, also Papua New Guinea's minister for community development, told the committee. "We have no data on sorcery and we have no data on the number of people who have been arrested for killings or practicing sorcery, or those who have gone to prison."

Silence Fills the Room

When Gabr, chair of the review committee, asked the rest of the country's delegation if they had anything to add to Kidu's comments about the government's response to the killings, silence filled the room.

Press accounts have found 50 women killed in 2009 for sorcery and witchcraft and Papua New Guinea's status report to the committee states that these killings have doubled in recent times.

Recent reports from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have both expressed grave concerns over the practice of witch hunting and the brutalization of women by the country's many tribes in one of the world's most culturally remote countries, where the mainly rural population practices subsistence-based agriculture. The reports indicate that heavily-armed tribal villagers sometimes drive off police who have come to investigate reports of sorcery-motivated murders.

These murders may be linked to a worsening HIV-AIDS epidemic. In Papua New Guinea--with a population of 6.5 million and a literacy rate of 62 percent--AIDS is widely viewed as the result of black magic by witches and sorcerers rather than a modern disease that must be treated with modern medicine, members of the CEDAW committee said.

The committee also questioned the delegation about abortion, which is illegal in the predominantly Christian country.

Kidu, the delegation chair, said that despite the law, safe terminations are available through private doctors but cost a lot of money.

"I personally believe that we should review this law against abortions but I think full legalization is far off for Papua New Guinea," Kidu told the committee. "But we should liberalize it to avoid unsafe terminations."

Rape and incest are also considered a widespread problem in this largely rural country of numerous remote villages with tribal loyalties. Without legal access to abortion, Kidu expressed her concern that victims of rape and incest must "have the children of criminals."

'Close-to-Slavery' Working Conditions

CEDAW Committee Member Meriem Belmihoub-Zerdani called the country to task for "close-to-slavery" working conditions for women. Only 5 percent of women have formal wage employment. Most work in fisheries and agriculture, subject to back-breaking physical labor, long hours and few protections. She also expressed concern about the lack of sexual-harassment labor laws.

Helen Saleu, a delegation member from the Ministry of Labor and Industrial Relations, said her minister has asked for a review of the employment act to address this and other issues concerning working women.

Committee members also expressed concern that, beyond the persecution of women as witches, other types of violence against women--such as domestic violence and rape--were all on the rise and that police, local leaders and even school teachers were all among the perpetrators.

"The new systems we have put into place for the protection of women are not necessarily working," Kidu said, adding that activists were having difficulty moving anti-violence legislation forward.

Kidu said victims often declined to follow through on charges and prosecute their perpetrators.

"It's a major issue that the police lack the capacity and motivation to pursue domestic violence cases. They will actually say to women, 'Are you serious or are you wasting our time?' because so often the charges are withdrawn," she said.

Kidu added that women are so economically dependent on the men that this has become an issue of economic independence in addition to domestic violence.

Another member on the Papua New Guinea delegation, Karen Haive, first assistant secretary in the Department for Community Development, Gender and Development Branch, reflected on the session.

"This has been a good learning experience," she said, referring to the committee's intense scrutiny. "It helps us to really think about what areas we need to work on for the future of women in our country."

"This has been a good and open discussion," agreed Saleu, another delegate.

In her closing statement, Kidu, the delegation chair, apologized for what she called "a long delay and poor progress in meeting our obligations to CEDAW."

This article was contributed by Regina Varolli who is a freelance writer based in Manhattan, and the owner of Words by Regina Varolli and Co.