How many women? Ask the women of Papua New Guinea

How many women are raped in order to produce the world’s gold? How many women are chased off their land, kicked out of their own social structures, and otherwise beaten down in the pursuit of mineral resources? Ask the women of Papua New Guinea.

The Porgera open-pit gold mine in Papua New Guinea is a good old-fashioned money, and blood, pit: “The mine has a terrible reputation for both human rights abuses (rapes, beatings and killings by security personnel) and environmental damage (vast quantities of potentially toxic tailings dumped into a nearby river). But gold prices, while down from their recent peak, are still three times what they were a decade ago, so dig they must.”

The Porgera mine, owned by the Canadian company Barrick, is rich. In the last two decades, the mine has produced over 20 billion dollars worth of gold. Barrick is rich. Papua New Guinea is poor. Almost a third of the population lives in dire poverty. Around the Porgera mine, it’s worse. As happens so often around `wealthy’ mining sites, the area has experienced severe “social disintegration.” The local communities derive little benefit from the mines, and what benefit they get is slotted to the men. Gender inequality increases. Women become both absolutely and proportionately poorer and more vulnerable. Bride price and polygyny increase dramatically. Women’s status declines. Women’s customary abilities to negotiate dwindle. Abandonment of women and children rises. Domestic violence both increases and intensifies.

Three years ago, a major report investigated and confirmed repeated incidents of gang rape of local women by Porgera’s private security firm. All of the women were brutally beaten. None of the women reported the rapes. What would have been the point? Another report, this one from last year, noted: “A number of the women whose assaults had become public knowledge were stigmatised, beaten by family members or divorced by their husbands.”

The women started organizing and issued demands. What happened? At first, nothing. Then … Barrick created a “remedy program for victims”. This included “the requirement that to receive compensation, women must waive their right to sue Barrick.”

In order to get help, in order to get compensation, the women have to sign away their rights. First, Barrick denied and stonewalled for five years. Then they bullied and bullied some more, all in the name of `remedy.’ The United Nations `recommended’, and the world `condemned.’ No matter. The Barrick non-judicial grievance mechanism remains in place, opaque as ever. Here’s how one witness describes it: “Many women were not aware of the remedy program, others were suspicious of it, and we found general lack of clarity about the process. Women said that the program was being run in a language that they could not understand and that they had not been offered translation. Women said that the things they were being offered through the program were either not what they needed to address the harm they had suffered, or not compatible with culturally appropriate remedies for the type of harm they had suffered, or simply not commensurate with the harm they had suffered. The primary things these women were being offered were baby chickens to raise and second hand clothes to sell. The program seemed to be confusing small scale development programs with remedy.”

There is no confusion. The founder and chairman of Barrick explained that the sexual violence at Porgera occurred because, in Papua New Guinea, “gang rape is a cultural habit.” It never happened, we weren’t there, and anyway it’s your fault, even though it never happened. Barrick was there, Barrick is there … and in Tanzania … and … How many women? How many more women?


(Photo Credit: Brent Stirton/Getty Images for Human Rights Watch)

In the camps, the women sigh, “O brave new world”

A key plank of Australia’s asylum policy is deterrence. What happened to asylum being the key plank of asylum policy? Deterrence in this instance means “offshore camps”, particularly on the islands of Manus and Nauru Islands. Manus Island is part of Papua New Guinea, where a trial opened today to challenge the legality of the “processing camps”. The charge is that the Papua New Guinean law does not allow for detention without any charge. Detention camps. Processing camps. Or, as Marianne Evers said of the camp on Nauru, “I actually liken it to a concentration camp.” Not surprisingly, the Australian government takes offense at the likening, “I think invoking concentration camp is a disgrace.” Calling the camps on Manus Island and Nauru Island “concentration camps” is a disgrace, but the camps themselves … are fine?


Last week, New Matilda published three sets of letters by women asylum seekers currently imprisoned on Manus Island. The women are from Iran, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan. They describe terrible hardships in their homelands, terrific struggles to get to Australia, and then debilitating, crushing conditions on Christmas Island and then on Manus Island. They describe the dire mental health crisis that sweeps through the camps, especially among the younger men who are increasingly suicidal. They write about their struggle for safety for themselves and their children. They write a great deal about their children. They describe the life draining out of their children within the universe of trauma that constitutes the detention camp. They describe the cultures and public policies of violence against women in their homelands that compelled them to leave, to seek personal safety and dignity.

The United Nations Refugee Agency, UNHCR, issued a report last week on Manus Island, based on a January visit. The agency confirms the reports of the women asylum seekers. The physical conditions are “harsh”. The living quarters have no privacy, which is a particular concern to parents of girls; are unbearably hot; and have grossly inadequate sanitary facilities. And that’s the family compound. The conditions in the compound for single male adults are worse.

The conditions are generally and specifically traumatic. They breed mental health crises on an individual, collective and structural basis. For the adults, it’s terrible. For the children, it’s crushing.

The UN list of dehumanizing conditions goes on, but here’s the point. This is what happens when deterrence is a key plank in asylum policy. Since Australia began “offshore processing” its asylum seekers, have the numbers gone down? Absolutely not. They’ve risen, incrementally. Does that mean the policy hasn’t worked? According to the State, it means the State hasn’t arrived at the proper balance of harsh and brutal. When the Australian government can match the brutality the women, children and men have fled, then it will have arrived at what it considers to be an appropriate asylum program.

Australia has invested political capital, national identity, and hard cold cash in brutalizing asylum seekers. They have sought partners. First they turned to Papua New Guinea, and this week, they turned to New Zealand. Australia sees asylum seekers as another `opportunity’ for regional free trade agreements. This time trade is in battered bodies and dreams.

Why can’t asylum, rather than deterrence, by the key plank of the asylum policy? What would it take to move the concept of the right to asylum to the center of all asylum policy? Ask the women asylum seekers on Manus Island. Repeatedly, they say they fled violence but they sought peace. Peace, rather than `security’, must govern asylum policy.

Meanwhile, the women who sought peace sit in the harsh camps on the remote islands, look at their children, look at themselves, look at the guards, look at where they’ve come to and where they’re probably going, if the State has its way, and they sigh, “O brave new world, that has such people in’t.”

(Photo Credit: Al Jazeera)