Family and sexual violence is endemic in Papua New Guinea. In 2015, a report by Human Rights Watch declared it “an emergency”, and accused the government of failing to protect women, even when they go to great lengths to seek help.

Little official data is collected but one study found that three-quarters of children and two-thirds of women in Papua New Guinea had experienced violence in their homes, and more than half had been raped. According to another study by UNICEF, nearly half of reported rape victims are under 15.

There is little help available. Women say their complaints are ignored by police, or they’re told to go back to their husbands – and with no government financial assistance for victims of family violence, most have no choice but to do so.  

Wellingtonian Laura Barnett began learning about gender-based violence in 2015 during her first VSA stint, a one-year Univol assignment at Kabaleo Teachers’ College in Kokopo (the capital of East New Britain). While there she met Billie Roberts, a young Australian working in PNG’s forestry industry and raising her family there.

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Laura Barnett (centre) with the FMI Sisters

Billie had become passionate about tackling gender-based violence and was volunteering for the local Family and Sexual Violence Committee (FSVAC). The committee was meant to be receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in government funding as part of a multi-sector approach to target family and sexual violence, but not a single cent had turned up, says Laura.  

“Billie had started showing up at the police station and just talking to the women. And she’d see that the door to the room where a police officer was supposed to be looking after these women would be locked, all day every day, and no-one seemed to be helping them. So she was trying to get to the bottom of the issue.”

There was also meant to have been funding for a one-stop clinic at the hospital where survivors could receive first aid, STD check-ups, emergency contraceptives and counselling; it, too, had never materialised. Instead, victims were bounced around from one service to another, with long waits each time, having to repeat tests because their paperwork hadn’t been transferred or simply being told to “come back tomorrow”.

The hospitals were trying their best to deal with the problem but were inadvertently re-victimising them with their bizarre policy of charging “domestic violence fees”, says Laura.

“Someone going in for a ‘regular’ emergency might not have to pay anything or a very small fee, if they had an injury from a machete in the field or something. But if it was domestic violence – if their husband had hit them or cut them with a machete – then they’d have to pay a fee. We asked the hospitals why they had the fee and they said ‘to discourage domestic violence’.”

Eventually, partly thanks to FSVAC’s persistent advocacy, the hospital management scrapped the fee.

Laura says that to her as an observer, gender-based violence in PNG was “just so normalised”.

“In general everyone had the view of ‘that’s a family issue’. Like, ‘leave it inside the house, don’t bring it outside the house’. And these women went through so much, and they would just kind of soldier on.”

The problem is exacerbated by increased inter-marriage between people from different provinces, she says.

“Ideally in Papua New Guinea culture, in more rural areas where there’s no court or police and you have to deal with it in the village, you’d have a really strong support system of family. So if your husband was beating you, your father would go in and have a really stern chat with him: ‘this isn’t on, we’re going to take our daughter back home with us if you can’t take care of her properly’. Or you could run away to a family member’s house down the road.”

But many women in East New Britain have moved from places that are a plane trip away, and they’re cut off from all their support networks. “So if a woman’s husband is abusing her, or maybe her mother-in-law is abusing her – or everyone is – she might not have anyone to reach out to. Literally nowhere to run to.”

It was becoming clear to Billie, Laura and the FSVAC that a safe house was an urgent priority. Laura’s Univol assignment ended in late 2015 but, determined to help, she returned to Kokopo the following year – this time under her own steam. She spent the year volunteering for the FSVAC and helping Billie develop the safe house idea – flying home to New Zealand every few months for brief stints to work and save money, before returning to Kokopo.

In 2016, Laura and Billie started fundraising in earnest, channelling all the money they raised into Billie’s small charity, Roar4PNG. Fundraisers included a charity screening of New Zealand films Once Were Warriors and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, and a fashion show featuring clothes they’d bought from a second-hand shop and upcycled with the help of some ex-pat women; these were modelled by local nursing students and sold at the show.

Meanwhile Finn Egan, Laura’s Univol successor at Kabaleo Teachers’ College that year, became so inspired by the safe house campaign that he returned home the following year and walked the entire length of New Zealand – 3200 kilometres – raising more than $37,000 for the safe house.

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Finn, on Te Araroa Trail

By now, a diverse network of locals and expats was interested in the project and there were ongoing discussions about what form it should take – including whether its location should remain a secret as in the New Zealand Women’s Refuge model.  

“But nothing is ever a secret in PNG,” says Laura.

“So we thought 'why not take that context and use it to our advantage?’ So we tried to spread the message everywhere: we were like ‘right, we want to make a safe house, if anyone wants to donate money or expertise or materials or time or whatever, you can do it’.’’

The response was overwhelming: builders and architects, both local and expatriate, offered their services for free or at reduced rates, and businesses and individuals donated everything from building materials and fencing to furniture. Two Papua New Guinea donors gave $15,000 and Laura succeeded in getting the New Zealand High Commission in PNG to commit $50,000.

During this time, Laura was getting to know the order of nuns who would be pivotal to the whole project: the FMI Sisters of the Congregation of the Catholic Church in Kokopo. Led by the indomitable Sr Wilhemina (“Willie”) Sundu, the sisters had not only offered up their own site at Vunapope as the location for the safe house, but volunteered to run it too. 

 “They said ‘we don’t really know what a safe house is, but we’ll do it’,” says Laura.   

“That was huge. It’s on their property, and it’s completely run and managed by them. So they’re the ones: if it thrives or fails, it’s all on them.”

The Catholic Archdiocese of Rabaul agreed to allocate the sisters’ land to the project, and in 2017 Laura’s volunteer role was turned into an official VSA assignment, as Family and Sexual Violence Action Liaison with the Archdiocese. Her main focus: to get the safe house project up and running.

A crucial part of this role was helping build the sisters’ capacity to run a safe house.

With funding from VSA, PNG Air and Roar4PNG, Laura organised for five of the sisters and herself to travel to Bougainville in August 2017 and do a study tour of several safe houses run by the Nazareth Rehabilitation Centre (another VSA partner).

The staff at each safe house showed Laura and the sisters everything they needed to know to run a centre: from what sort of data to collect and how to record it, to specific measures needed to keep survivors safe.

“They’d teach us things like, you absolutely have to take cell phones off [survivors] because if they have a cell phone they’ll inevitably get back in contact with their partner who’s been abusive, and he’ll say ‘I miss you’ and they’ll tell him where to come, and chaos will ensue.

“And we were able to ask lots of questions like ‘how many survivors do you get, what are their typical situations, have you had any problems…’ So they’d tell us what really happens day to day: how to care for survivors, how to make it safe and secure in the PNG context, how to use the community around them to support them and protect them.”

When she was invited to a friend’s wedding in Fiji later that year, Laura decided to divert her flight through Suva and visit the Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre, which she says is a best practice model for the Pacific.

“And they were amazing. So amazing. They had a whole bunch of external funding and they said ‘you guys aren’t in a position where you’re that flexible, so why don’t we use our funding and we’ll come to you for free?’”

So a team of trainers from the Fiji centre, along with a trainer from their sister organisation in Vanuatu, travelled to Kokopo and provided free training over a two-week period.

Laura tried to get as many “front-line responders” as possible attending the first week of training.

“What often happens in Papua New Guinea is sort of political… In all these organisations you’ll have one top manager who will often be the one who gets trained, again and again, and the knowledge will never get passed on to anyone below that level.

“So I went to each organisation, and I knew who was who by then, so I said ‘no, I want your front line, I want the person who’s dealing with the survivors day-to-day to come to this training’. So we had all these first responder people being trained on just the basics: like what is gender, what is a man’s role, what’s a woman’s role, what does it mean, how does power work… gender-based violence training basically.”

In the second week, the sisters were trained in counselling, and the sessions were also opened up to others who were interested.

“We were targeting people in really remote communities, trying to get an even geographic spread across East New Britain so that there’d be at least one person in each community if someone needed to talk to someone.”

They even got some airtime on the local radio station, with the Fiji trainers, Sr Willie and the FSVAC leaders all doing an on-air counselling roleplay.

Throughout this process, Laura says there was often resistance, and she had to carefully navigate gender politics herself when dealing with (invariably male) community leaders. Sometimes that meant picking her battles.

“I would generally try and get people onboard with me first, then slowly suggest things. Also to have any clout in PNG, it’s like a cultural thing where you have to have a bit of a ‘front’… if you want to be heard, you do have to be a bit pushy, or have a bit of a persona. So I found sometimes I’d decide ‘this is a fight worth fighting’ so I would have to do the war dance, is the only way I can describe it! And sometimes that didn’t go down well.

“But most of the time I’d just try and work within the culture. And constantly my own ethics were being questioned: all the time. Like ‘ok, I don’t agree with this, but there’s no other way this is going to happen’.”

All this time, Laura had been working through options for the safe house design with the sisters. “We tried to think of everything from a customer-centric perspective for these women: what kind of space would they want to live in, what doors do they want to be able to close, what spaces will their children need, will they want to be able to go inside or outside…”

She’d settled on a quick and cost-effective design solution: shipping containers, which are used fairly often in building in PNG. “And the more we researched it, the more we thought ‘you can make shipping containers look really nice’… because we didn’t want it to look like a prison for these women, we wanted to make it look welcoming.”

Laura managed to get a local business to donate two containers, and another business stored them for free.

By now, Laura’s VSA assignment was coming to an end. In the meantime, she’d become good friends with fellow VSA volunteer Gordon Botha and his wife Barbara. Gordon was also working for the archdiocese in Kokopo, managing the build of a low-income housing project. He generously shared his office with Laura, and the pair would often chat about their respective projects.

Gordon had got to know the sisters well, and now there was a temporary lull in his housing project, says Laura.

“So when I said ‘oh god I’m leaving, my role’s going to come to an end, it’s not going to be built in time, what are we going to do?’, he said, ‘well, why don’t I take it up?’ And Gordon was just perfect because he knew all the politics and the background, he knew all the people, and he had so much more expertise than I do on the building side of it. So it was just perfect.”

So Gordon took on the challenging job of project-managing the safe house build – within fairly severe financial constraints – and continuing to hone the design brief in consultation with Sr Willie.

“In effect, she was my client: I was building the house for the FMI sisters. Every time I turned around and wanted to know, well, ‘what do you want here and how should this look and how is this going to work’, we got together and we worked through all those issues.”

Now it was Gordon’s turn to make the long trip to visit the Bougainville safe houses. One of them, at Chabai, was run by Sister Lorraine Garasu; Gordon admiringly refers to her as “an institution”. Chabai included a training centre that employed survivors who had nowhere to go once they left the safe house. Gordon was struck by the safe house’s complete absence of any high security.

“Sister Lorraine didn’t have a prison-like environment with fences and gates to keep people out, she didn’t find it necessary. She proved that if you operate this institution in a Catholic training centre like she was running, there’s lots of people around all the time. And all of those people in the community know everybody else in the community, and any strangers moving into that community are immediately recognised.”

Recognising the similarities to their own situation at Vunapope, Gordon and the sisters began to rethink the original design, which featured a high fence near the building and a security “airlock” area through which all visitors would have to enter.

“It was kind of prison-like, and when I saw that that was how it was looking, I knew that you don’t want to do that to the women who are affected by this problem: you want to make it as homely and as pleasant for them as you can. It’s a shattering experience that they’re going through anyway.

“When we made the decision that we weren’t going to go that route, with the closed fence and funnelling people in, and just rely instead on the community to look after that aspect of security, then we were able to take the walls we’d put up there out.

“And now you’ve got this huge, almost church-like space in the middle, which is going to make a wonderful space for the people who are going to live and work there.”

The final design is beautiful in its simplicity: two containers 15 metres apart, joined in the middle by a deck and a roof over the entire building. It has three bedrooms down one side for privacy, with the toilets, kitchen, counselling room and office down the other. Gordon says it has a similar feeling to a marae, with plenty of room to throw extra mattresses down if they’re required; the rest of the time, guests can use the central area “to chat with other people in the same situation as them”.

Finally, on December 6, 2018, the Safe Meri House (“seif haus” in Tok Pidgin) was officially opened.  Sadly, neither Laura nor Gordon was able to be there to see it.

“I know it’s there, I know I’ll see it one day. Honestly, the reward is in doing the work in the first place,” says Laura.

For both these VSA volunteers, however, the most rewarding aspect of the safe house project was working with “Sr Willie” and the FMI Sisters.

“I had no idea about Catholicism before this, to be honest,” says Gordon.

“And then I got to work with this group and be invited into their society, into their houses, to functions with them… that whole aspect to me was the most rewarding: working with these fantastic ladies and helping them to get what they want. And them always being so grateful for whatever little things I did, you know? I didn’t think I was doing very much but they were just so overjoyed that somebody had taken an interest and come to help them do it.”

“Sr Willie… I could talk all day about her. She’s incredible,” says Laura.

“She was the main driver in Kokopo – none of this would have happened without her. Whenever I said ‘we’re going to have to make this happen, we have to do this, this and this’, she would just make it happen: she’d get her sisters together and they’d make it happen.

“Working so closely with the sisters and seeing how, even in the beginning when they didn’t have any understanding of what this would involve, they were just so open to the whole process... I was like ‘let’s go to Bougainville and visit these safe houses’ and they were like ‘yeah, let’s do that’. ‘Let’s do this training, let’s take care of survivors every day – are you guys willing to do that?’

“For them, it’s not a job they can quit after three years: that’s their apostolate, that’s their fulltime life. So I have so much admiration for that.”