“This Violence Will Destroy the One Thing We Pride Ourselves On”

This fall, I visited Papua New Guinea, a country with one of the highest rates of violence against women in the world. While there, I had the opportunity to meet with Ruth Kissam, a brave advocate on the front lines of gender-based violence. For the past 20 years, she’s worked in her community in the highlands, educating women about their rights and working to end sorcery-related violence, which is on the rise in many provinces.

We talked about the laws in her country, the incredible diversity of tribes, where women stand in comparison to pigs, white male privilege, and, most importantly, her incredible contributions to her country.

Here is an excerpt from our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity.

Ambassador Russell: Tell me about where you’re from.

Ruth Kissam: I’m from the highlands, where there’s a lot of tribal fighting. We have more than 1,000 tribes in Papua New Guinea. We have about 850 languages.

Russell: That’s really unimaginable.

Kissam: I know! I can speak three, but I can understand maybe another two more. So you can just imagine the diversity of different cultures all coming together. There’s been, especially in the highlands, fighting between tribes.

The three major things that they fight over are always their women, their land, and their pigs. The pig is a very, very important commodity for them. They pay their bride price with pigs. If you do it with money, it’s not compensation, it’s not a bride price, it’s nothing unless pigs are involved.

Russell: It’s upsetting to hear those three things lumped together: women, land, and pigs — as if they’re all things instead of human beings.

Kissam: Especially when it comes to women, yes. It varies. In some cultures, like my culture, a woman is not only prized for what she can bring to the tribe, she’s also someone that looks after her family. She’s a bridge between her and her husband’s tribe. She’s the model for the next generation.

So when they do go to war over women, usually it’s over the fact that there’s been violence involved, or the husband hits her and the brothers find out about it. It’s terrible to say this, but if the brothers don’t find out about it, then nobody knows. She can’t go to the police.

Russell: What would the police say?

Kissam: “It’s a domestic thing, go back and talk to your family.” That has been trouble for some time. The Family Protection Act passed and now it’s being seen as a crime. But there’re instances where people don’t even know there’s such a law.

Russell: You were talking earlier about the importance of family here. And that family takes care of each other. You also said there’s a more challenging side as well.

Kissam: All my aunties, and my uncles and my cousins, we lived together, sometimes in one house. Sometimes your parents send them to school. They repay all that by paying for your school fees. For others, your parents paid for their bride price. Now, they turn around and pay for your brother’s bride price. Our family is our safety net.

But there’s another aspect, where if you’re the one that is working then you’re obliged by custom, by what was done for your parents, by what was given to your brothers and sisters, to return that favor.

Sometimes the expectations are too much. You can’t save up for what you want, because you’ve got to meet those obligations.

Russell: Does that impact women in a particular way?

Kissam: Very much so. If you’re a woman, you’re expected to get married; not turn out like me where you’re alone until you’re in your thirties. That’s the one thing that you’re prized for, apart from your bride price. You’re joining tribes. Your husband’s people will be helping your people.

If you’re not giving them that, not meeting all those other obligations, you get shunned by everyone. You’re not part of the family.

Russell: Tell me more about your work.

Kissam: I work with PNG Tribal Foundation around sorcery-related violence. Where I come from, sorcery beliefs are big. Traditionally, if they believe that you used sorcery to kill someone, they would try to kill someone from your tribe using sorcery. — not physically. But in the past five or six years, it has become physical, and there’s been torture of women to the point where they’ve been killed or even families have been killed.

Most of the survivors do not prosecute because they don’t want to be kicked out of their family. Most of the perpetrators are related to the women. That’s one of the things that’s really affecting families in Papua New Guinea. They don’t go to the next village to kill someone. If someone dies in their own family, they start looking to blame a woman within the family first.

Russell: Because they don’t know the actual reason somebody dies? Or they’re looking to blame somebody else?

Kissam: There’s a lot of reasons surrounding it. It could be because of property. The sad thing is, they always go for the marginalized. The weakest. They always go for someone that is divorced, that doesn’t have male relatives, that doesn’t have sons. They will go for a woman with daughters only. They will go for that kind of women.

As soon as the word gets out that this is a witch, everyone goes into automatic. Fear surrounds everyone.

Russell: I’ve heard that you’re incredibly courageous and that you confront people and try to address it. What gives you the courage to do that?

Kissam: In February 2013, a woman was killed meters from my house. They dragged her body to the rubbish pile.

I went home in October. My dad was sick, we went to the hospital, and while waiting for the doctors to call his name I saw a notice that said, “If you know any of these dead bodies, please collect them.” There were six names. Next to one of the names was written, “Woman burnt in fire.” Then,in brackets, “Sorceress.” I called and said “This woman, is she still there?” and the guy said “I don’t know. Nobody came to collect her, but this was eight months ago, so I’ll check”.

I went by the hospital some days later and tried collecting the body. We went through other bodies and she was right underneath. She was lying there in the hospital all this time with no one claiming her body.

Her family couldn’t collect the body because they would be liable for compensation. The people that killed her said that she killed one of theirs, so they felt like they did the right thing. With no evidence. The police arrested them but none were prosecuted, none were convicted.

When I tried to claim her body, her family came to me and said, “If you claim her body, you’re claiming her responsibility for what she did.”

The young boys that killed her, they came to my dad and said, “She can’t collect the body. She helps us out, she gives us all these things. If she touches the body, she’s going to curse us. Whatever she gives us from now on will be cursed.”

So we came up with an agreement. I called up an American missionary friend and said, “You’ve got to come help me out. You’re a white man, and if you collect the body you’re going to get away with it.” He comes over and he gets the body and we buried her one month shy of the anniversary of her death.

From then on, I realized that if we don’t do something, this violence is going to destroy the one thing we pride ourselves on: family. Sons are killing their mothers, because their father’s brothers are saying, “Your father would have been here, but your mother killed him with her sisters.” These things are happening.

So we’ve been setting up sorcery desks in the police stations so women can easily report. We even have numbers they can call. The police are now taking action. We already have an arrest.

Russell: Someone told me the idea isn’t to get rid of sorcery, because people believe in sorcery, but to stop the violence associated with it. To say, believe what you want, but you can’t kill.

Kissam: Exactly, that’s the whole thing. We can’t eradicate sorcery, because that’s been around hundreds of years. But killing people, that we have to stop.

Russell: Would you say you’re optimistic about women here in PNG or concerned, or both?

Kissam: I can’t wait to see PNG women actually live the real essence of who they are. They’re very strong, they’re very resilient, they’re tough.

There is a strength in PNG women that I don’t see in many other women. Even under very difficult situations, they thrive. If they’re given the stage to perform without fear, it’ll be worthy to see.

Russell: And do you think that’ll happen?

Kissam: It will. It will.