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world wide wednesdays :: trouble in paradise

when i was quite young, my parents got me a globe as a christmas present. you wouldn't think that would be exciting for a child, but i had great fun spinning the thing and then stopped it, seeing what exotic country i'd caught under my finger. i liked to imagine visiting these places, or living there when i was an old woman in my twenties. [ok, i didn't actually think one was old in their twenties, but it still seemed like a long way off.] somehow, during one of these games of "find a place and imagine being there", i came up with the idea that i was going to move to papua new guinea. i'm not sure what i thought i was going to do there. i had this idea that fortune just showered gifts upon you and allowed you to do pretty much what you want, which i suppose means that i intended to be some kind of royalty. i did not fulfill my early dream of becoming some kind of benevolent ruler surrounded by all the animals i could imagine there and i have never visited anywhere even on the same continent. but for some time, i was fascinated by the tropical wonderland on the far side of the world. [note :: this was before i grew up and became fascinated by greenland. greenland is the new new guinea.]

since i grew up in an era before the internet, i wasn't able to learn a lot about the country. in fact, when my magical globe was made, chances are that it was one of the first to feature papua new guinea, because it only became an independent country in 1975 [although it officially adopted the name three years earlier]. i knew that it was tropical and i imagined it being covered in jungle, which large parts of it are. i pictured coastline, which there is aplenty, and i also pictured volcanoes [volcanoes being central to my understanding of the tropics], of which there are several. the nation sits on the pacific ring of fire, which is more of an arch than a ring, that runs all the way around the east, north and west borders of the pacific ocean and contains most of the world's volcanoes. the volcanoes are really just a side effect, though, because the real issue is that the ring of fire demarcates the edges of tectonic plates, which means that earthquakes and tsunamis are frequent concerns. [side note :: when i was a child, i made the mistake, or "kind of" mistake of looking at the country i saw on my globe and thinking that the large island was partitioned into the papua half and the new guinea half. i only had designs on the part i thought was called new guinea. the truth is that the eastern half of the island forms the nation of papua new guinea, while the western half of the island is part of indonesia- the provinces of papua and west papua. so there was reason for me to think that the western half was the papua half. to make things more confusing, the entire island is known as new guinea, but only half of it is in the country of new guinea, which is only half of the country's name. if they'd put me in charge, i totally would have made that simpler.]

what i didn't realise was that the tropical part, which seemed so enchanting to me because i'd never seen real tropics [even now, the furthest south i've been is the mexican baja peninsula and that's a desert], is one of the less remarkable things about papua new guinea. for instance, despite its hot, humid climate year-round, the tectonic activity that formed the himalayas and lifted the islands of indonesia above the ocean formed a mountain range in png that has real honest to god glaciers. a country with an average annual temperature of 27 celsius [about 80 fahrenheit] that's about two-thirds the size of texas also has permanent ice sheets. it's also known to get snow in the highlands, one of the only equatorial regions where that can happen.

png also remains one of the world's remaining mysteries. even in an age of satellites and digital mapping, the interior of the country is relatively unexplored. there may be hundreds or more species of plants nestled, undiscovered there and animals as well. [png is estimated to contain 5% of the world's biodiversity.] the incredible range of animal life  on the mainland bears a lot of resemblance to its southern neighbour, australia and the two were connected for some time after they broke away from the antarctic land mass. both have marsupials, for instance, and large flightless birds that are found nowhere else on earth. both contain flora that was originally present in antarctic flora, the remnants of plant life that existed in the southern part of earth's original supercontinent. [side note :: the links with australia only apply to the "mainland", meaning the eastern half of new guinea island. there are a number of outlying islands that are included in the territory of the nation of papua new guinea that have their own unique flora and fauna, which are different than those found on the mainland. taken as a whole, png is exceptional because its flora and fauna are drawn form the southern antarctic strain and from southern asian strains, a combination found nowhere else on earth.]

what might come as a surprise is that papua new guinea is one of the fastest growing economies in the world, a function of its considerable natural resources. of course, that also raises considerable concerns about sustainability. at current deforestation rates, the country's rainforests will have fallen by half as of 2021. pollution of all sorts is an increasing concern and deforestation has made mudslides a very real danger in many parts of the country. the nation's largest industries- mining, logging and palm oil above all- are environmental nightmares for all life forms there. although there are provisions in the country's constitution to protect and preserve natural diversity, they have proved difficult to enforce due in part to corruption and in part to the country's complex system of land ownership that gives the central government little power to enforce its own laws in many cases.

perhaps most fascinating, however, is the fact that png is the most culturally diverse area on the planet. how diverse, you ask? the country is home to fully 12% of the world's spoken languages. over 800 distinct languages, most with only a few hundred speakers, less than half of which are even related to one another. that still means hundreds of isolate languages with virtually no written history, many on the verge of extinction. it's difficult to wrap one's head around that kind of diversity, but as an example, the number of languages spoken in papua new guinea is roughly equivalent to all of the languages spoken in north, central and south america. [side note :: before you ask, no, there are not more than eight hundred official languages. there are three. hiri motu is an austronesian language that is by far the oldest of the three. english is an official language, but this is mainly a holdover from when the country was controlled by the british and australians. less than 2% of papua new guineans speak it. the third official language is tok pisin, a complex hybrid of a number of other languages- local and european- that serves as a common tongue among the country's different cultural groups. "tok" is a derivative of the english word "talk", although its meaning is closer to that of "speech" or "language". "pisin" comes from the word "pidgin", usually a term that denotes a creole-type language, hammered together to allow basic communication. the word "pidgin" is actually thought to come from the word "business", indicating that such tongues were originally used for trade purposes. whatever its origin, tok pisin is now a fully fledged written language and is increasingly being adopted as a first language across the country.]


despite having all that to offer, however, papua new guinea would be an incredibly dangerous place for a woman to move. why? because png has a rape rate of almost 60%.

yes, you read that correctly.

a 2013 study by the lancet of more than ten thousand men across asia and the pacific found that 41% of men in papua new guinea admitted to raping a non-partner, while 59% said that they had raped a domestic partner. [one hopes that there is considerable overlap between those two groups.] 14% of the men interviewed said that they had participated in gang rapes. and while the victims were overwhelmingly women, png also had the highest rate of male-on-male rape of all the countries studied, with about 8% of men saying that they had been perpetrators. according to unicef, fully half of female rape victims are under fifteen and 13% are under seven. only a tiny fraction of these crimes are reported.

these results are far higher than the average in most countries [for example, the incidence of non-partner rape was generally between 6 and 8% in most of the countries studied, compared to the 41% recorded in png], which begs the question: why is there so much rape happening in papua new guinea?

a woman burned as a witch in the png highlands
the short answer, unsurprisingly, is that we don't really know. there are a number of reasons that probably contribute, and there is likely no one reason that's responsible more than others. here are some of the factors that researchers think are behind the horrifying statistics:

  • in rural areas, women are often still considered property. marriages are often an agreement between a bridegroom and a father. although women have rights under the law, many may not realise this, or may fear being ostracised from their communities if they speak out.
  • there is a long history of conflict between the numerous tribes in the country and as a result, violence against women [or people in general] may not be perceived as "wrong". [again, that's culturally speaking, not legally.]
  • arranged marriages are still very common in rural areas and it's not uncommon to see brides of around twelve years old. this may skew the perception of when it is appropriate for a girl to become sexually active and would help account for the high number of child victims. 
  • language and isolation remain problems in rural areas, which means that access to the authorities may not be easy for many women, even if they did want to report a rape. 
  • many rapes go unreported because they are "dealt with" within rural communities. the perpetrator[s] pay a penalty to the family of the victim and the authorities are none the wiser. 
  • a png man shows where he mutilated his wife's ear
  • many people in rural areas still believe in sorcery and women are often suspected of being witches 
  • since women often do not have money of their own, they cannot afford to pay to get an official medical statement that they were raped. without this, there is no proof of the crime.
  • although papua new guinea is large rural [only about 18% of its people live in cities], there is a trend towards greater urbanisation. with unemployment rates in the capital of port moresby reaching close to 60%, there are the attendant frustrations, anger and criminal activities one would expect. poverty and hopelessness breed crimes of all sorts and rape offers an opportunity for the perpetrator to feel powerful and in control. [side note :: many papua new guineans live in extreme poverty, however those in rural areas are able to grow their own crops and have community support. the phenomenon of widespread urban poverty is something with which the country is still coming to grips.]
  • criminal gangs have become a problem in many cities and some have claimed that they ask new members to rape [and preferably kill] a woman as a rite of initiation.
  • being drunk is sometimes accepted as a defense for rape. 
  • the problem is given limited political visibility because few domestic politicians have adopted it as a cause. international groups like amnesty international and doctors with borders have brought the issue up, but there are few domestic figures willing to take up the cause. part of the issue may be that women are barely represented. women make up less than 3% of the country's parliament. that doesn't preclude men championing the cause, of course, but since women would be most likely to sympathize with the plight of other women, it makes political action less likely.
port moresby slum
that's a lot to overcome. and, as i've touched on earlier, it's hardly the only problem facing the country at the moment. there is the hope that by raising awareness of the problem, it will encourage people to moot solutions. for certain in a country so incredibly diverse, change is something that will have to be built through consensus and input from many areas. laws already exist, but are neither followed nor enforced in many cases.

strangely, i still do want to visit papua new guinea some day. i'd like to compare it to what i imagined as a child, when it was just a lilac coloured splotch on my first globe. but really, i'd like to see as much of the weird, wonderful, contradictory things the country has to offer and i'd like to do so safely. there is always hope.


as long as you're here, why not read more?

don't speak

you might think that it sounds dramatic, but linguistic genocide is something that happens. people in power will go to great lengths to eradicate certain languages, not just for the sheer joy of making the world a lesser place, but as a way of beating down the culture that's associated with it. language has a unique reciprocal bond with culture, and every group that has attempted to break down another has recognised that forbidding a cultural group from communicating in their own language is an extremely effective way to tear apart their culture.

there are lots [and lots and lots and lots] of examples of this sort of thing, some successful, some not, but far too many to cover in one blog post. however, i thought it was worth looking at some languages that have been the subjects of active repression, and what the political consequences of that have been.

devastation :: the native north american languages :: it should come as no surprise that the largest genocide in history [by a ma…


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