International Policy/United Nations

Papua New Guinea Apologizes for CEDAW Record

Monday, August 2, 2010

Papua New Guinea came to New York in July to face a U.N. inspection of its recent record on women's rights. A critical panel highlighted murders of women accused of sorcery and witchcraft and the chair of the delegation apologized for the country's poor record.

UNITED NATIONS (WOMENSENEWS)--Papua New Guinea--one of the few countries in the world where women's life expectancy is lower than men's--ratified a major U.N. women's rights treaty in 1995, but then proceeded to miss four deadlines for reporting on its compliance with key provisions.

When the delegation from the half-island nation in the southwest Pacific appeared in New York in late July it turned out to be the first encounter with the review committee on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, CEDAW. The committee was reviewing status reports from six other countries during its 46th session from July 12-30.

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The meeting was housed in the temporary home of the U.N. headquarters, located on New York City's East River, during a remodel of the main U.N. building.

Seated on a raised platform in the large conference room, Carol Kidu, the chairwoman of the Papua New Guinea delegation, and Naéla Gabr, the CEDAW committee chairwoman, faced the 23 members of the CEDAW committee. First the committee read questions aloud, after which the delegation chair responded. Then the floor was turned over to 15 delegates representing various branches of the Papua New Guinea civil service, who delivered their responses.

A key concern of committee members was what the government was doing to stop the murders of women accused of sorcery and witchcraft.

"Research is being done on the emergence of killings of so-called witches and on the sudden increase of identifying women at the village level as witches and killing them," Kidu, also Papua New Guinea's minister for community development, told the committee. "We have no data on sorcery and we have no data on the number of people who have been arrested for killings or practicing sorcery, or those who have gone to prison."

Silence Fills the Room

When Gabr, chair of the review committee, asked the rest of the country's delegation if they had anything to add to Kidu's comments about the government's response to the killings, silence filled the room.

Press accounts have found 50 women killed in 2009 for sorcery and witchcraft and Papua New Guinea's status report to the committee states that these killings have doubled in recent times.

Recent reports from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have both expressed grave concerns over the practice of witch hunting and the brutalization of women by the country's many tribes in one of the world's most culturally remote countries, where the mainly rural population practices subsistence-based agriculture. The reports indicate that heavily-armed tribal villagers sometimes drive off police who have come to investigate reports of sorcery-motivated murders.

These murders may be linked to a worsening HIV-AIDS epidemic. In Papua New Guinea--with a population of 6.5 million and a literacy rate of 62 percent--AIDS is widely viewed as the result of black magic by witches and sorcerers rather than a modern disease that must be treated with modern medicine, members of the CEDAW committee said.

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It appears this government lacks an education system that shows the fallacy of their views on witchcraft, as well as on the importance of female equality and everyone's human rights. To really end this problem, it must be tackled on many fronts, legal, educational, policing, and possibly religious. It sounds as though the government is happy to allow women in government to make statements on behalf of women, without having any real power to help women.