Social policy | The Pacific

23 April 2021

While the Papua New Guinea Government has taken a number of promising steps towards preventing domestic violence and protecting survivors, more can be done, Judy Putt and Lindy Kanan write.

In Papua New Guinea (PNG), one of the less-known impacts of the COVID-19 outbreak has been a spike in domestic violence. However, domestic violence has been a serious issue in the country long before the pandemic. In order to understand the ways PNG is combatting this pressing issue, a team of 25 Australian and Papua New Guinean researchers – including the authors of this piece – carried out a large-scale research project over a 16-month period to assess the impact of civil protection orders.

PNG, like many Pacific Island countries in the past decade, introduced legislation that included provisions for family protection orders. Such orders have become a mainstay and critical option for survivors globally, and the research team wanted to know where the orders were being accessed, and if they were improving the safety of domestic and family violence (DFV) survivors in PNG.

The family protection orders were introduced through the Family Protection Act 2013, which has the stated intent of promoting safe, stable and strong families, preventing and deterring domestic violence at all levels of society, and ensuring there is effective protection for the victims of domestic violence.

There are two types of FPOs: interim protection orders (IPOs), which are for 30 days and can be extended for another 30 days, and longer-term protection orders (POs), which can be imposed for up to two years. Upon application, an FPO can be issued by a court for a stipulated period of time, with conditions imposed on the respondent that seek to prevent further domestic violence. Breaching an order’s conditions is a criminal offence with a maximum penalty of up to three years imprisonment and/or a 10,000 Kina fine. 

The research team’s investigation into FPOs involved a range of methods, including interviews with 118 survivors who applied for an order, a survey of 180 young adults, interviews with key stakeholders, court observations, and the collection of justice and client statistics. An increasing number of IPOs are being issued across PNG in urban and regional centres, but the numbers varied considerably by location. The project found that in most research sites a minority of IPOs are converted into longer-term POs, and that very few breaches of IPOs or POs are reported.

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A number of key conclusions were found from the research project. Notably, FPOs are becoming more well known, but the processes are not well understood. Additionally, while increasing awareness is important, the system needs further funding and resources to respond to demand. 

It was also observed that police, while critical to effectiveness of the system, do not always fulfil their role effectively. However, specialist family and sexual violence (FSV) services make a substantial difference by supporting and helping survivors both in times of crisis and over the longer term. At the judicial level, obtaining orders depends on access to district courts and committed magistrates.  

Importantly, FPOs appear to improve safety for most applicants. Based on the research, more than 80 per cent of applicants who were issued an IPO feel safer as a result. However, many applicants are cautious about expecting this feeling of safety to be sustained over the longer term. 

Among the sample of IPO applicants who were followed up with for two months after they applied, their perceptions of safety became more polarised, with some interviewees feeling more safe and others less so. Such a finding underlines specific times of risk, such as during the service of the order and the subsequent few weeks after the order is served, as well as the need to provide support to survivors over the longer term, especially with obtaining POs.

Another important finding showed that having family and church support can improve the effectiveness of FPOs and reduce the risks to DFV survivors.

This research found examples of both progress and effective local arrangements, and it is important to build on these gains. There is a general perception among national and provincial stakeholders, such as the Family and Sexual Violence Action Committees (FSVACs), that IPOs can be helpful, and that they are a less expensive option for DFV survivors than other generic preventative orders. 

At the research sites, there were activities that sought to educate the communities and train key stakeholders on the FPA. Stakeholders reported improvements in service provision for DFV survivors, with specialist FSV services often demonstrating exemplary practices. In Bougainville, the researchers heard of examples of men’s programs and working with village leaders and justice processes, and encountered committed police, court officials and magistrates at all of the research sites. 

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Despite these encouraging developments, based on the findings of this research, there are a number of ways to improve the effectiveness of FPOs in PNG. 

Primarily, justice sector stakeholders can improve public awareness and knowledge of FPOs. This could be supported by the PNG Government and the donor community providing ongoing, long-term funding to civil society organisations to improve and expand victim support services for FPO applicants across the country.

In addition, donor community support can better target capacity building within the justice system in order to create a more efficient process for applicants, including skills development for key agencies involved in the FPO process.

At the highest level, the government should consider options for improving the specialisation and efficiency of courts to process FPOs, as well as other matters relating to domestic violence and family law. This could be supported at the local and community level by the civil society and donor community expanding programs that work with FPO respondents.

There is a need for the Magisterial Services of PNG to work towards nationally consistent and timely reporting on FPOs. This should support national and provincial stakeholders, such as the FSVACs, to use available data to monitor how FPO processes are working.

Finally, as with the gamut of service delivery in PNG, the government needs to carefully consider how FPOs or similar mechanisms can be more accessible in rural areas. Accessibility can also be enhanced by ensuring that the good practices employed to issue FPOs electronically during the COVID-19 state of emergency are continued by the justice sector.

The introduction of the FPA was an important step towards protection from and prevention of domestic violence in PNG. It is clear that many within the government and justice sectors are committed to protecting DFV survivors. However, as shown through the research, there are still substantial roadblocks to the broadscale protection and justice required to combat this national crisis. 

This article is based on a longer ANU Department of Pacific Affairs (DPA) summary report. You can find the original report here.

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