ARAWA, Autonomous Region of Bougainville, Papua New Guinea – Sexual violence, early marriage, gender inequality and poverty are some of the factors being blamed for the alarming rates of depression and attempted suicide among women in Bougainville, an autonomous island region in eastern Papua New Guinea with an estimated population of 300,000, which emerged from a devastating civil war fifteen years ago.
Last year a new family health and safety study, conducted by the United Nations and the Autonomous Bougainville Government, was publicly released. The report revealed that today one in four men and one in three women suffer depression.
One in twelve women, compared to one in thirty three men, have considered taking their own lives, while far more women, one in five, than men have attempted suicide.
Barbara Tanne, Executive Officer of the Bougainville Women’s Federation in the region’s capital, Buka, was not surprised by the report’s findings. She spoke of the psychological challenges and distress related to persistent economic hardship and high rates of sexual violence experienced by women.
At the Arawa Health Centre in Central Bougainville, Tracey Tsiroats, a Health Extension Officer, has witnessed suicide cases first hand.
“No-one has done research to really find out, but most of the [attempted suicide] cases we have involve families, problems in families, relationships and marriages,” Tsiroats said.
Most victims are young married girls, she continued, struggling with marital issues.
In Hakets village in North Bougainville, Bernadette Lasin, a young mother with three children aged between 4-8 years, who separated from her husband six years ago, tells me of the struggle she now faces in life.
“As a young mother, I face hardships when my husband left me without a house, when my daughter was seven months old. My little girl, my baby, has been sick since birth. Every month we must find 300 kina to buy medicines for my baby. All the time we must find money,” Lasin recounted.
She earns about 50 kina per week by selling fruit and vegetables at the local market, but it is nowhere near enough to support herself and her child.
According to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the high levels of depression and attempted suicide in women worldwide is strongly related to their experience of violence, as well as socioeconomic inequality and lack of power in their lives.
Last year’s report makes a connection in Bougainville between ongoing mental health disorders related to the decade long civil war, known as ‘the Crisis’ (1989-1998), during which thousands witnessed and experienced human rights abuses, their symptoms, such as post-conflict trauma-related anger, alcohol and substance abuse, and high rates of domestic and sexual violence, particularly against women. Today three in four women endure intimate partner violence and seven in ten suffer emotional abuse.
‘Women, as well as youth, are paying the price for the lack of truth and reconciliation mechanisms and trauma rehabilitation resources for the Bougainville population,’ the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights reports.
Cultural and social attitudes and traditional marriage practices are further barriers to many women, especially in rural areas, being able to enjoy safety, freedom and equality.
Women are widely expected to submit to men’s dominance in the household and marriage, with overall 85% of men and 75% of women believing that wives should obey their husbands, according to the family health and safety study.
Tsiroats identifies that both polygamy and child marriage in Bougainville are significant factors in cases of depression, attempted and actual suicides by women.
“In marriages now men are involved in polygamy, marriage with more than one woman, and these women have problems…..and it is leading to wife beating,” she claims.
However, many of the suicide cases Tsiroats has seen involve young married girls aged 18-26.
“They don’t really understand what married life is. All they think is that when I am with a man and a baby comes up, then we are married. We say that we have children giving birth to children because they are not ready to handle marriage issues. Then most of them, when there is any family problem, they go straight to suicide,” Tsiroats said.
Statistics in Bougainville reveal that about one in six women marry, and one in 12 women give birth, before the age of 18 years.
In Arawa, Tsiroats says the most common method of suicide is the drinking of Gramoxone, the herbicide. “They come here with sores all around their mouths and burnt tongues and they end up dying here because we can’t help them much. We can’t reverse the effects. It is a very poisonous thing,” she emphasised.
And with post-war reconstruction of infrastructure and public services progressing very slowly in the autonomous region, many women do not have access to the expert help they need. Health, mental health and counselling services are currently inadequate with a reported ten doctors and one mental health nurse serving all of Bougainville.
When I asked Tsiroats about preventive measures, she advocated strongly for education.
“We should give awareness to young girls and women about married life. They should really understand what marriage is and we should include the husbands too, we should involve the men. We should also go out into the villages and address these issues,” she advised.
At the Bougainville Women’s Federation, which is working to economically and socially empower women, Tanne believes it is just as important to build women’s capacity for financial independence, so they are better able to cope if they face abuse and economic neglect in marriage or abandonment.
“When a woman is going through hardship, she needs to have something there to support herself. Not just the young women, but also the deserted mothers and widows,” she said.
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This post was written by Catherine Wilson