Sexual violence in Lae: impunity and resistance

Protest against gender-based violence in Lae, February 14 2013

Lae, on PNG’s northern coast, is the country’s second city and industrial hub. It is also the capital of PNG’s largest province, Morobe. Its main government hospital, the Angau Hospital, is home to PNG’s most successful Family Support Centre (FSC), which provides medical support and psychosocial care to survivors of family and sexual violence. Supported by Medecins san Frontieres (MSF) since 2008, in the last five years the FSC has provided care to over 11,500 patients.

Many of those cases involve women being beaten or knived. But many are also cases of sexual  violence. In 2010, the Centre attended to 530 survivors of sexual violence. Of these, 338 were adults (above 16) and the other 192 were children. Of the 338 adult cases, 322 were cases of rape. Of the 192 child cases, 149 were of rape.

These are, by any standards, depressingly high levels of reported sexual violence and rape. But our interest is in how many of these cases make it through the legal system and result in convictions. In 2012, there were only eight prosecutions of cases in the Lae National Court involving sexual offences, seven where the victim was a child, and one where the victim was a woman.

The single case where the victim was a woman did result in a conviction. It was a case in which the accused pleaded guilty. For the other seven cases, all involving children, three did not proceed to trial. The other four resulted in convictions: two as a result of trials, two as a result of guilty pleas.

The average time from committal to finalisation of the case was 24 months. So these 2012 cases related by and large to 2010 cases.

By putting these two data sources – prosecutions from 2012 and sexual violence cases from 2010 – together we can estimate the probability of a sexual violence case in Morobe leading to a National Court conviction where the victim is an adult. That estimate is 1:338. The actual probability is even lower because not all victims of sexual violence in Lae or Morobe, the region from which the Lae National Court draws it cases, would visit the FSC.

The probability for a sexual violence case involving a child leading to a National Court conviction, similarly estimated, is better, but still very low at 4:192.

1:338 and 4:192 are shocking statistics. It indicates that sexual violence, especially against adults, can be committed in Lae with impunity.

Some might argue that it is not the proportion of perpetrators who are punished but the proportion of survivors who are protected which is the relevant statistic. But the former is a very good proxy for the latter: the lack of punishment for perpetrators is a clear indicator of the lack of protection and leverage available to survivors.

Some also mention that though almost none of these crimes find their way to the National Court system, many are likely to be addressed at the level of village courts or by informal community responses. It is true that village courts are now recognised as part of the PNG legal system and have been authorised to settle certain cases through compensatory settlements. However, this does not include cases such as sexual assault, rape or child sexual abuse which, according to PNG law, are crimes that must be referred to the National Courts. And even if the parties involved may sometimes prefer compensatory settlement of such cases at the village court or community level, this can hardly be considered a satisfactory outcome.

Others might argue that these statistics are simply products of PNG’s weak law and justice system in general. Perhaps. However, it is worth noting that the eight sexual violence cases heard in Lae in 2012 were eight out of 84 criminal cases. Is sexual violence only 10% of all crime in PNG? The incredibly low number of adult sexual violence trials (one in 2012) suggests that the rape of a woman is not in fact seen as a crime.

PNG is not the only country which struggles to translate reported cases of sexual violence into convictions. To the contrary, the problem is an international one, and a focus for campaigners worldwide (see this example from Delhi).

Understanding why the rate is so low in Lae, and no doubt more broadly in PNG, is an important first step. While more research is needed to understand why and where the chain of justice is broken, one clear problem is the unsatisfactory efforts of the police. We were in Lae last month, and, while we were privileged to meet some dedicated policewomen, we also saw first hand the inadequacy of police efforts to arrest perpetrators. We can also see this in the data, though it is only available for 2009 not 2010. In 2009, almost two-thirds of the 360 sexual violence cases that came to the FSC were referred there by the police, or were referred by the FSC to the police. Clearly, the police take effective action in relation to only a very few of the cases which come to them.

But during our week in Lae we also saw the extraordinary efforts of a small but growing network of people and organisations who attempt to render the vital services which survivors require, including medical care, counselling, protection and prosecution. Not only FSC staff, but a number of police and legal officers, and government, non-government and private-sector community workers, organisations and leaders provide critical services to survivors, and advocate and lobby on their behalf. Heroes in a desperate situation, they deserve our support and reinforcement.

The Lae Angau Hospital Family Support Centre works because of a relentless focus on the provision of essential medical services. The same approach now needs to be taken to providing the other needs which survivors of family-based violence have, including for protection and justice. We also should recognise the efforts those on the ground are already making to assist victims, despite their limited and stretched resources. This is the foundation on which accountability to the survivors of family and sexual violence must and can be built, in Lae and throughout PNG.

We would like to thank MSF and the Office of the Public Prosecutor for providing us with the data used in this article. The views expressed in this article are the strictly the personal views of the authors, and should not be taken to represent the views of any organisation they are affiliated with.

Just a few days after our visit to Lae, an Angau Hospital nurse was raped. The entire hospital went out on strike, and one of the perpetrators was arrested. 

Stephen Howes is the Director of the Development Policy Centre. Kamalini Lokuge is a Fellow at the ANU National Centre for Epidemiology and  Population Health and a Research Associate of the Development Policy Centre. She is also research development advisor to MSF-UK . 

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Stephen Howes

Stephen Howes is Director of the Development Policy Centre and Professor of Economics at the Crawford School of Public Policy at The Australian National University.

Kamalini Lokuge

Dr. Kamalini Lokuge is a Research Fellow at ANU’s National Centre for Epidemiology and Public Health (NCEPH). She works closely with Devpolicy on issues regarding to PNG health and gender.


  • This is not just an issue of Lae City, but across PNG. We ran a workshop in 2009 at the request of the Kaugere community ( a settlement in Moresby), and while the original request was to focus on human rights in relationship to ‘family’ or domestic violence, we included issues of sexual violence, including violence against children. It was hard and painful for people to move from ‘domestic violence’ to the broader but more relevant issue of violence in all its forms within PNG society. Starting with the UN Dec. on the Rights of the Child, moving to Human Rights and then Indigenous Rights, we drew out law and order as a basic human (including child) right, and asked the group to develop and action plan and what they would do to start to build basic human rights in their community. We started with 19 men and 23 women (and 35 children) on the first day and finished the week with 29 men and 43 women. In other words, people were really interested and they came up with creative and powerful commitments to what they could do for themselves … because the law, as a protective force, does not reach into their community.

    • Hi Judy,

      What were the details of the outcomes the people themselves came up with? Would or could they work elsewhere?

      ‘Workshops’ per se are great to air everyone’s views but must lead to practical solutions otherwise they just end up being self actualizing talk fests. Either that or they end up becoming opportunities for some to lecture others about what their audience is supposed to know.

      I do hope the workshop mentioned didn’t just become a flash in the pan and not end up being carried through to some workable and ongoing practical solutions?

      People need to see that any potential solution to this problem that can and will make an impact must be culturally acceptable and therefore able to be implemented by those affected.

      BTW – Isn’t Kaugere where Lydia and Peter Kailap are running their amazing children’s music school without any help from AusAID?

    • Hi Katy,

      In very simple terms (and it depends on what the legal framework is to some extent) it basically means that once an offence is taken on by the prosecuting authority (which is some way down the line from being reported to the police or referred to the prosecutor to determine if criminal proceedings should be initiated) it is continued by the prosecuting authority regardless of the wishes of the complainant either to continue the proceedings or to give evidence. It removes any prosecutorial discretion to discontinue the proceedings. Depending on how it combines with plea-bargaining arrangements it may lead to more trials. I hope this helps.


  • PNG is not alone in trying to come to grips with this sort of crime. An important issue is one of understanding the origins of why it happens and the perspective of those who are committing the crime.

    It reminds me of the report on an habitual thief who became absolutely livid when his own house was broken into and many of his own items stolen or destroyed. He couldn’t see the trail of heartache and sorrow he had left behind himself but could only focus on how indignant he alone felt.

    Would the husbands, fathers, brothers of the victims be prepared to act against those who break the law before they themselves were personally affected and aggrieved? The buck has to stop somewhere.

    The disruption of village family life and the dysfunctional metropolitan existence, where those who are either under employed or unemployed is a potential breeding ground for all sorts of social problems. Where the previous community constraints of the village are now either non-existent or weak, the efforts of those few who are trying to help the victims and potential victims are often quickly ameliorated.

    The essence of the issue is to look above the forest instead of trying to continually trip over the fallen trees. No government, public body or leader seems to be prepared to do this as they know they will instantly become bogged down in human emotions and issues of out of control hormones. It seems like everyone has a strong, reactive view of how to combat crimes against women after it happens but no one wants to be the first to be proactive and confront the main reasons behind it?

    Until enough people get together and start thinking holistically about this issue, nothing much will change. The metropolitan gender imbalance in PNG, ephemeral community values and controls often due to mixed cultural backgrounds and loyalties and an under-funded law enforcement service clearly aren’t helping but only exacerbating what is a common, underlying problem not just peculiar to PNG.

    Unfortunately, no political or community leader apparently wants to be the first to examine these issues in any detail.

  • Thanks Stephen and Kamalini for a somewhat disturbing, but enlightening blog. In the end the only thing that can make the PNG criminal justice system function in respect of holding sexual violence offenders to account is the collective will of millions of PNG’s fathers and husbands and brothers, standing alongside their women. It would seem then that the issue is partly, or mostly, normative, and it’s heartening that you’ve identified that there are brave people and organisations who are standing up to this scourge. It seems clear that resources are well spent supporting the efforts of these change-makers in PNG, because this is the source of the energy that will turn around for good criminal impunity to sexual violence.

    ‘Of the three sources of power the most important for sovereignty is the power over the thoughts that give trust. Violence can only be used negatively; money can only be used in two dimensions, giving and taking away. But knowledge and thoughts can transform things, move mountains and make ephemeral power appear permanent’ (Mulgan 2007).

  • Thanks for this post and comments so far, this is indeed a very important issue and as has been highlighted further research will be needed. I would raise a couple of points which are intended to amplify the issues rather than counter anything that is here. The first is that prosecution is a function of the state not the victim. In relation to criminal offences the state takes prosecutorial action (on behalf of society as a whole), with the victim being a witness for the prosecution. In cases of sexual violence prosecutors encounter the difficulty of the main witness often being unwilling to testify in court for a whole host of reasons (family/community pressure, reluctance to face the attacker, lack of appropriate court facilities to account for special circumstances, e.g where the victim is a child). Some jursidictions have sought to mitigate this by providing dedicated witness support workers (expensive) or instigating a no-drop policy within prosecution offices (can result in victims being designated as hostile witnesses by virtue of the adversarial system used by courts in common law countries). Another more pragmatic response (not examined here and possibly not applicable but it would be good to know) is for prosecutors to negotiate a guilty plea to a lesser charge to save the victim having to testify. The figures here are illustrative but it would be good to see how they compare with other PNG centres and/or other countries. There is a wider issue around the political economy of law, justice and policing which I will mention briefly here (and hopefully expand upon later): there are no votes in these things as they tend to be issues that would normally be part of a national rather than a local conversation. Whenever we talk about ‘service delivery’ or the lack thereof in rural PNG or elsewhere we talk about health, education and infrastructure but the concept of ‘law and justice’ as a service is not entrenched on either the supply or demand side.

  • Stephen and Kamalini – thanks for this informative blog. It provides some hard facts on the sad state of sexual violence in Lae city. The real heroes, as you rightly point out, are the members of the public plus the NGOs such as MSF who provide care and support to the victims. Your data shows the pathetic rates of conviction, but what you miss is the fact that a large number, something like half when I last looked at the statistics, of those sent to jail escape confinement. May be it is time the people of PNG stood up to crime. The Indians have shown us that this can be done.

  • Stephen, Kamalini

    Such an important conversation to bring to light, though always such a shame that violence continues.

    As a White Ribbon Ambassador, standing up for the ending of violence against women, we need to maintain the conversation, the advocacy and work together, men and women, to effect change such that violence against women is never excused or ignored – let alone committed.

    Mel Dunn

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