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Volunteers Working To Change Papua New Guinea's High Rates Of Domestic Violence

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The South Pacific nation of Papua New Guinea has one of the highest rates of domestic violence outside of a conflict zone. That's according to the World Health Organization. An estimated 2 out of 3 women there will experience abuse in their lifetime, more than twice the rate here in the U.S. But a network of informal safe houses on a shoestring budget is trying to change that in the capital of Port Moresby. NPR fellow Durrie Bouscaren reports.

DURRIE BOUSCAREN, BYLINE: Their identity is passed by word of mouth. If you're having a hard time, call Linda.

LINDA TULE: In a week, maybe I get four, three cases from women been belted up and physically abused. I get those - lot of calls.

BOUSCAREN: Linda Tule lives a few streets away from the traffic snarls of Port Moresby in a small house under a mango tree. Kids play in a broken-down van out front. She has a day job overseeing the neighborhood's village court system. But this is where she sees her clients - church ladies, flight attendants, moms with kids in tow.

TULE: The first step I need to do is to console her and give her courage - is to say, do you want a preventive order to stop your husband from doing what it is that he's doing?

BOUSCAREN: In the U.S., her role might be filled by a domestic violence hotline or a drop-in shelter. Here, she's part of a citywide program to reach survivors of gender-based violence through a network of volunteers known as human rights defenders. They're coordinated out of an office at Port Moresby City Hall by Ruth Beriso, a government worker.

RUTH BERISO: Without the human rights defenders, we would have been - had women being killed in settlements in the middle of the night.

BOUSCAREN: The city's 15 human rights defenders refer cases to her office. There, caseworkers will coordinate medical services to help survivors file police reports and arrange transportation to shelters in town.

BERISO: At most times the human rights defenders are at risk because they report somebody, that somebody's doing something bad. And they are the ones who get attacked.

BOUSCAREN: Cathy Umba carries a camouflage backpack everywhere she goes. A patch on the back says SWAT. She can't read or write, but the stack of papers inside are her shield. They're proof that she has a court order protecting her from her ex-husband.

CATHY UMBA: (Foreign language spoken).

BOUSCAREN: About 18 years ago, she says, she visited a cousin in the town of Mount Hagen. Relatives of her cousin's husband forced her into a marriage with a man she hardly knew.

UMBA: (Through interpreter) We did not have any relatives living there, so I had no choice. I could not defend myself to say yes or no, so that is why I went.

BOUSCAREN: She was his fourth wife, she says. When she tried to leave him, he beat her badly.

UMBA: (Through interpreter) He used a bush knife to cut my hair, and then he punched me here.

BOUSCAREN: She brushes her left cheekbone below her eye. Later, she tried to run away from him at a shopping mall and again to her sister's in Port Moresby, and they told her to find Linda Tule.

TULE: That's when she started to come and look for me. And that's how I came in to assist her.

BOUSCAREN: When Umba came to the house, Tule got a phone call. The ex-husband was back. He had found Umba's sisters and driven to their house with a truckload of armed police.

TULE: Well, we told her to hide.

BOUSCAREN: Tule rushed to the house, swallowed her fear.

TULE: They were screaming at the family, abusing them. I went, and I showed them my ID - this one here, my human rights defenders ID. They saw it, and then they just left.

BOUSCAREN: In 2013, Papa New Guinea passed a law outlining penalties for domestic abusers. But whether it's enforced depends on where you are and the connections you have. Local police are known for being unwilling to intervene or demanding that you pay for their gas when they show up. So it's people like Ruth Beriso who start to fill that role. We're driving back to the office, and she explains that what keeps her doing this work is her personal connection to the issue.

BERISO: I can share it because my mother - she died because of GBV.

BOUSCAREN: She says her father had long been physically abusive to her mother. And one night, she says, he permanently damaged her spinal cord.

BERISO: She was killed. She was killed. You know, my father hit him in the - hit her in the back. And she developed a nervous system breakdown. And she couldn't, you know, go on like that, so she just passed on.

BOUSCAREN: Beriso was 12 years old.

BERISO: You know, you grow up in violent home, and it makes you want to see things different. And you want to change the future, maybe your own future.

BOUSCAREN: And now the future of others because when it works, it means that people have someone to go to in their own neighborhood who can say, what you're going through isn't OK; here's what comes next. For NPR News, I'm Durrie Bouscaren in Port Moresby, Papa New Guinea.

KELLY: And Durrie is NPR's Above the Fray fellow. It's an international reporting fellowship sponsored by the John Alexander Project. To hear the first segment of this two-part series, visit npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.