Published on 24th October 2014
If an angry husband decides to try to get his wife back from one of Bougainville’s safe houses, he will have to contend with Sister Lorraine first. The four safe houses, established and run by the Sisters of Nazareth as the Nazareth Rehabilitation Centre, offer safety and advice for women and their children escaping violent homes.
Liz Hicks has been volunteering as management adviser for the Centre for the last year, and says Sister Lorraine is not to be messed with. She remembers one husband showing up with reinforcements as she and Sister Lorraine were about to go to bed – “We were in our nighties, but Sister Lorraine just said to them, ‘Come back in the morning. We won’t have a conversation after dark.’"
“There’s a power attached to the nuns,” Liz says. In fact, they’ll often be the ones to deliver protection orders to violent men. Liz is the second VSA volunteer to work at the Centre: Susan Hinkley acted as Legal Adviser prior to her arrival.
Liz, whose background is in NGO management, says, “The thing that excited me about Sister Lorraine’s programme is that she also educated men and boys.” The Centre runs sexual health classes for girls and boys, which cover family violence along with information about contraception and STIs. For adults, Sister Lorraine offers human rights training, identifying key people who can take messages back to their villages.
Liz says she concentrates on the UN legal framework that underpins human rights – the UN Declaration on Human Rights (UNDHR), the Convention to Eliminate all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). Liz took these complex documents and made them each into A4 bullet-pointed sheets. “People want to know how it affects them, directly. When they understand that, then they can go back and read all the fine print.”
The safe houses themselves – in Buka, Chabai, Buin and Arawa – have been funded by the New Zealand Aid Programme and AusAid and the Centre’s own fundraising. They take “a two-pronged approach,” Liz says, “providing safety and access to justice through protection orders.” The orders are fairly well- policed, she says, “If you break them, it’s automatically six months in jail, no questions asked.”
Liz has worked on a number of initiatives, including a clear process for “moving women from being a victim to a survivor.” The Centre can provide whatever women need to complete that step, whether it’s legal help or life skills training. “The final step is reintegration.” For the woman in question, that could mean going back to her home village – or it could mean going back to her husband.
Viktoria Degerman also volunteered in Bougainville, as part of the team that launched a Family Support Centre (FSC) at Buka General Hospital in November last year. Viktoria says that other agencies such as the Sisters of Nazareth were already doing great outreach, but the “FSC has a unique medical and psycho/social standpoint that is a basic necessity to deal with immediate trauma.”
The FSC provides medical and psychological support to the victims of family violence.
Since Viktoria left in April she’s continued to stay in touch with the FSC team, and says she’s pleased to see that a donor grant from UN Women that they applied for had been approved, along with another from Counterpart International, which have provided the Centre with the means to keep recruiting and training local volunteers. These volunteers help to alleviate the workload (they hope to eventually open the Centre 24 hours a day), but Viktoria says involving volunteers also “engages local women in the Centre activities, spreading knowledge of it and making people feel comfortable accessing it if necessary.”
Each month, the FSC sees 20-30 new clients, and around 20 ongoing clients, with the numbers increasing all the time. Both Viktoria and Liz say that as awareness of their centres and of family violence issues goes up, the numbers of women and children (and some men at the FSC) keep climbing.
“Unfortunately,” says Viktoria, “there seems to have been little change in gender violence rates for some time,” though she adds that good data is hard to come by. The contributing factors are complex: while the link between conflict and violence is known, Viktoria says the rates of gender violence are the same in Bougainville as they are in Papua New Guinea, despite the Bougainville Conflict.
There is certainly, she says, more awareness and talk of equality between men and women, but both Viktoria and Liz say traditional views of women as chattels are still around. Liz says she’s had men show up at safe houses saying things like, “We’ve come for Robert – you have something that belongs to him.”
Viktoria remains immersed in it, even after her assignment: gender-based violence in Bougainville is her thesis topic. “It’s really a never-ending job, and change has to happen slowly, but I did feel that things were achieved at the FSC that will make a lasting impact.”