Media Release from the UN Human Rights Office for the Pacific, Suva, Fiji: – To mark International Women’s Day, 8 March, the United Nations (UN) in the Pacific will celebrate the economic, political and social achievements of rural women. The UN Human Rights Office for the Pacific (OHCHR) is highlighting the work of women’s human rights defenders in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea. The UN Human Rights Office for the Pacific supports women’s human rights defender networks in Papua New Guinea, Bougainville, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Kiribati. Below are two incredible stories of courageous women human rights defenders who work with OHCHR to build and strengthen human rights defender networks in their communities.
Monica Paulus – Fighting against sorcery related killings
Monica Paulus, a human rights defender, has been fighting against sorcery-related attacks for years. She assists women who have been attacked after accusations of witchcraft by providing them with food, hiding them in a safe place, assisting them in presenting their cases to court, or taking them to the closest hospital. She herself was accused of being a sorcerer and, as a consequence, lost all her possessions, including her house. “I feel for those women who have been accused of having magical powers,” she says. “I understand their suffering because I also went through it and that is why I want to help them.”
Sorcery is believed to account for sudden or unexplained death or illness: the end result is often that someone is killed for another person's unexplained death. Every year hundreds of people are put to death or tortured because someone thinks they are responsible, for a death or a disease, using black magic. Women are six times more likely to be accused of sorcery than men, according to Amnesty International.
Paulus recently helped a woman accused of sorcery and managed to hide her, together with her daughters, in a safe location. Because of the assistance she provided, Paulus has been threatened by some members of the community. “They say I am the one who helped the sorcerer. I am stigmatised because I help innocent women and their children.”
On one occasion, she sought assistance from the UN Human Rights Office in Papua New Guinea regarding a woman and her four daughters who had been tortured and raped after they were accused of sorcery. “The UN Human Rights Office helped them relocate to a safe location,” she says.
Paulus works full time with the Highlands Women’s Human Rights Defenders Network. The Network focuses on issues related to sorcery accusations and killings, tribal conflicts, and violence against women at home and in the community. A number of female members of the Network, including Paulus, are subjected to serious threats against their safety regularly because of their work. Aware of the risks she faces, she continues her work with courage and commitment. “Helping women accused of sorcery is the right thing to do,” she stresses. “They are suffering with hardly any support and people don’t want to go near them.”
“I am inspired by the courage of women,” she says. “Women accused of sorcery are victims of extreme abuse and horrendous killings.” The stigma is passed on to their children. “I have seen their children being displaced, abandoned and stigmatized,” she concludes. “I am aware of that plight and that is why I want to help.”
Mary Kini – Making “secret plans” to stop tribal fighting and end violence against women
Mary Kini, a human rights defender and a peace builder from Papua New Guinea, made “secret plans” to bring peace to her community. After years of intertribal violence that engulfed the district of Kup, in the mountains of Papua New Guinea, she teamed up with two other women to end fighting.
Mary, Angela Apa and Agnes Sil belong to three enemy tribes. In 1999, after one of the worst tribal clashes, they decided to take action. “We were all affected by the fighting. We lost our loved ones,” says Mary. “Our people had been fighting for so long: enough was enough, so we made secret plans to bring peace to our communities.”
According to tribal laws, women of enemy tribes were not allowed to talk to one another. Risking their lives, the three women came up with clandestine and innovative ways to meet and strategize, such as discussing their peace plans while shopping at the local market.
Mary, Angela and Agnes succeeded in mobilising others to support peace in the district. They even walked out onto the battlefields to send out messages of peace. This led to the creation, in 2002, of the Kup Women for Peace (KWP), which works on promoting peace between communities and ending violence against women.
Mary’s decision to work towards building peace and promoting women’s rights came after experiencing first-hand the consequences of inter-tribal violence. Because of the fighting, Mary was not able to regularly attend school. “I did not complete my studies because of tribal fighting, but I want young women who come after me to have a good life,” she says.
The KWP works in partnership with the UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR), Oxfam PNG and other women’s organisations from the region and is part of the Papua New Guinea Highlands Women's Human Rights Defenders Network which was initiated by OHCHR. Its activities and projects are assisted by OHCHR and Oxfam PNG, and by a coalition of 15 organizations working together to find lasting solutions to poverty and injustice.
In 2007 Mary Kini and the KWP received the 7th Pacific Human Rights Award from the Pacific Regional Rights Resource Team of the UN Development Programme. The award honours extraordinary efforts in advancing human rights and peace building throughout the Pacific and was given to the KWP for its outstanding work in situations of conflict, for its intrepid dedication to the cause of peace in the highlands of Papua New Guinea and for its bravery in challenging discriminatory customs and norms, including widespread violence against women.