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Papua New Guinea Aims To Redefine Masculinity In A Way That's Nonviolent

NOEL KING, HOST:

The Pacific island country of Papua New Guinea faces one of the world's highest rates of domestic violence. Advocates there who are trying to tackle the problem found out it isn't just the victims who are reaching out for help. Just a quick warning - this story may not be appropriate for younger listeners. NPR fellow Durrie Bouscaren has the story.

DURRIE BOUSCAREN, BYLINE: The first time Wayman Bonny hit his wife, he says, it happened so fast, he didn't realize what he'd done.

WAYMAN BONNY: (Through interpreter) I didn't mean to hit her. I just threw my hand at her, and it landed on her face. She was badly hurt.

BOUSCAREN: Bonny is 22. His wife is 18. Her parents kicked him out of the house.

BONNY: (Through interpreter) I saw her injury and became frightened. From there, I promised her, I will never hit you again.

BOUSCAREN: He spent the last two years living a few streets away, trying to make it up to her. This spring, sitting on a neighbor's porch up in the highlands of Papua New Guinea he says he grew up hearing couples fight in the houses around him, so much that it felt normal.

BONNY: (Through interpreter) Once they hit them, they leave it at that.

BOUSCAREN: Two-thirds of women in the country experience abuse at the hands of an intimate partner in their lifetime, according to aid groups. And in a United Nations survey on one of Papua New Guinea's islands, 62 percent of men admitted they had physically assaulted their partner.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Tok Pisin).

BOUSCAREN: In an unassuming office building in Port Moresby, the country's capital, a cluster of multilingual phone counselors crank through the afternoon rush of calls. When Wesh Siku set up a free, nationwide hotline for survivors of domestic violence, he expected the callers to be people most likely to be victims - you know, women and children.

WESH SIKU: After the launch on the 20th of August, the three callers were men.

BOUSCAREN: Men. And over the next three years of the hotline's existence, he says, up until today, almost half of the callers have been men. He says the fact that the hotline's anonymous seems to really help them open up.

SIKU: The phone provides, you know, that kind of avenue where men can talk openly about the issues that he's going through.

BOUSCAREN: But the men who called generally aren't victims of abuse says, Kinime Daniel, one of the phone counselors. Often, the callers are perpetrators. They've beaten their wives, their wife left them, and now they're looking for help.

KINIME DANIEL: Our job is not be judgmental. We understand that they need help. By looking at our culture, if we help the men, maybe we can mend the family.

BOUSCAREN: I ran this by Jacqui Joseph.

JACQUI JOSEPH: That's honestly really amazing.

BOUSCAREN: She runs a program called Equal Playing Field that teaches teenagers in Port Moresby and the island of Bougainville about healthy relationships.

JOSEPH: When we experience things around us, we don't hear of that. And we only see them as being perpetrators and sometimes even the word perpetrator itself, like, it's very demonizing.

BOUSCAREN: She says this is why it's important to teach both men and women about gender and equality and to teach them when they're young. Often, the kids she works with have witnessed domestic violence in their own families.

JOSEPH: They start having this mindset that, no, there's another way to solve issues and not just that way. And if people are not exposed to other ways, then, I guess, how other ways would we expect people to solve their issues?

BOUSCAREN: In Papua New Guinea the network to help victims of violence is limited and underfunded. But there are even fewer options for the people who admit they've hurt someone.

EDDIE AILA: Young men are lost, really.

BOUSCAREN: That's Eddie Aila. A few years ago, he launched a counseling program for young men that tries to redefine masculinity in a way that's nonviolent.

AILA: Basically we help people come back to themselves and learn how to self-accept and self-love. And to us, that's what's causing the violence - a lack of self-acceptance, of self-love.

BOUSCAREN: He says perpetrators of domestic violence are experiencing a sense of fear.

AILA: That emotion fundamentally comes from beliefs that a person may feel that they are not good enough or they're not loved or they don't belong.

BOUSCAREN: And when those feelings are challenged, he hopes, maybe the violence can be prevented. For NPR News, I'm Durrie Bouscaren in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.