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The status of #MeToo in ‘the worst place in the world for women’

Published: Updated:

Ask people in Papua New Guinea about #MeToo and you are likely to get blank stares, but in a country with a reputation as the worst place in the world for women to live, attitudes to domestic and sexual violence are slowly changing.

The beatings started before Lucy Sausiniaka was married and didn't stop even when she was pregnant with her daughter.

Today the gentle 23-year-old and her quiet doughnut-munching toddler live in a women's shelter by the shore of Port Moresby's Ela Beach.

The paint is flaking and old bedsheets are slung as curtains, but the Haus Ruth refuge is peaceful and, more importantly, it is safe.

That is a rarety in a city that struggles with gangs of marauding "raskols" and high -- although sometimes exaggerated -- levels of violence.

"He would beat me up, even in public" says Sausiniaka, her eyes darting around as if searching reluctantly for memories. "Usually under the influence of alcohol."

It is estimated that two-thirds of women in Papua New Guinea experience domestic violence.

Almost everyone here has a story about cries heard through neighbors’ walls. Sexual violence is commonplace too.

But behind the shocking statistics and harrowing testimony, attitudes and behavior appear to be slowly changing.

The shelter's ebullient manager Monica Richards says 2013 legal reforms -- imposing tougher prison sentences, fines and protection orders -- have made a real difference.

"Five or six years ago" the police would not always take domestic and sexual violence seriously, she said. "That has changed a lot. The police are now helping us."

She blames the introduction of alcohol -- which was relatively uncommon in this part of Melanesia -- for much of the abuse.

But also, the loss of traditional tribal structures when residents in this largely rural country head for the big smoke.

"For me growing up in the village, we hardly saw men beating up their wives," she said.

"I never saw my dad beating my mum, let alone anyone else in the village, but as I came to the city I saw that."

'I feel boosted'

Women like Sausiniaka are also increasingly willing to take legal action and their husbands too are offered counselling.

Elizabeth Fosape, a 47-year-old mother of seven who is also a grandmother, says it worked for her husband.

"He was not happy when I went to the police or the safe house," she says, but taking legal action and insisting on counselling "changed him. It works."

Elsewhere in Port Moresby, trailblazing women are taking the initiative in other ways, including driving women-only buses.

They offer a safer alternative for women who fear robbery, abuse, harassment or assault.

"The city is not safe for women to get around," said Gorame Momo, one of four female bus drivers in the capital. "We provide safe transport for them."

"I feel boosted, I feel like I'm doing something very, very big here," she says. "I want women to be doing this more, in a male-dominated job and doing it better."

As yet there are scant few Harvey Weinsteins in Papua New Guinea -- powerful men felled for their bad behavior.

But there are plenty of Alyssa Milanos or Tanushree Duttas, women brave enough to speak out and try to nudge their society forward.