If we want Port Moresby to rise in the liveability rankings, start by protecting its women

A year ago women and men across Papua New Guinea came together to protest in the streets. They wore black and held placards calling for an end to violence against women.

The movement was sparked by the murder of Jenelyn Kennedy, an act of such extreme violence it rocked our nation to its core.

My colleague Emma David wrote in the Guardian at the time that we must ensure Jenelyn did not die in vain. But 12 months on Covid-19 threatens to undo the progress we’ve made.

Job losses and violence against women go hand in hand. In PNG the socioeconomic fallout of Covid has caused as much devastation as the virus itself. Men have been particularly impacted by industry shutdowns. This has put more pressure on women to provide for their families.

While Australian cities were being hailed as being among the world’s “most liveable” last month, Port Moresby was named as one of the three least liveable. The governor described the ranking as ridiculous.

We’ve spent all this money to develop infrastructure and make the city so beautiful – it must be wrong, public figures cried.

The women of Port Moresby were less surprised. For us it can be dangerous to get on a bus in this city. For some it can be even more dangerous to stay at home.

I was president of the girls school I attended in Goroka. In my professional life I’ve held a number of leadership roles; I am now deputy country director of Save the Children PNG.

Yet I also know first-hand what it’s like to be covered in bruises under my clothes and trying to hide a black eye with makeup before the morning meeting. Putting on a brave face, going to work, walking into the office – the pain of smiling.

The emotions you suffer can be as vicious as the violence. I went down that pathway of wondering, “What are people going to think of me?” But if you don’t break away you continue to suffer and – worse – your children suffer too.

For those of us who are survivors, we’re on the other side now. Not everyone can manage this. Tragically, death can be the result.

PNG parliamentarians have set up a committee to tackle gender-based violence and its members have met to discuss the issue. But how many more workshops, discussions and forums do our leaders need to have? We know there is a problem – we need to find a solution. They keep talking when we need action. It brings a whole new meaning to the phrase “death by committee”.

When high-profile cases go through the courts, it’s important that they are attended to in a timely fashion. Justice delayed is justice denied. Justice must not only be done but it must be seen to be done.

And justice must start within families and communities. Families of perpetrators must stop enabling them by making excuses and turning away.

We need to start naming the perpetrators. Let’s call them by their names, let them worry about covering their faces instead of women worrying about covering their bruises. Let everyone see them, shame them and hold them responsible for their actions.

We must start building safer communities for women. We must stop ignoring the cries of our neighbours. If a neighbour is experiencing violence, walk across the street, jump the fence and go in. At least we know we’ve made an attempt to save a life.

To our leaders I say this: if the plight of your sisters, wives and mothers is not enough to convince you of the need for change, then do it for our reputation, do it for your precious liveability survey.

The economic and reputational consequences of being labelled the world’s third least liveable city rightly terrifies our leaders. But the survey gives “stability and violence” a 25% weighting and, if we want to get better marks in that area, we have some hard work to do.

In the meantime, women in PNG must continue to make their voices heard. At Save the Children we are still wearing black every Thursday in solidarity. We are remembering Jenelyn Kennedy and the other sisters and mothers we have lost. We are campaigning for “Safe Communities, Safe Children”.

We must not let Covid become a convenient excuse to forget them.

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