01 July 2018

Line to the Heart

The ChildFund/New Zealand Aid Programme-funded Counselling Hotline in Papua New Guinea receives dozens of calls each day from people suffering from, or reporting, abuse. ChildFund’s Shona Jennings talks to two Hotline staff from the 1-tok Kaunselim Helpim Lain.

There are few jobs as mentally gruelling as that of a counsellor. Especially when the country is Papua New Guinea, and the context is on the receiving end of a phone line, sensitively shepherding calls from women – and men – who have been violently abused. But Lua, a senior counsellor at the 1-Tok Kaunselim Helpim Lain, loves his job. “Putting a smile on the face of people, or someone ringing back and saying, ‘Thank you for what you have done or the information that you gave,’ it makes me feel good. Every time I leave the office I am satisfied that I’ve been able to help somebody else.”

It’s this heartfelt desire to help others that drives Lua, along with his fellow six counsellors, to rise early each morning to make the 7am start time, for a day of assisting people through their trauma. “I can’t let people wait outside there without help. There are lots of less fortunate people. That drives me to go back to work every day.”

Since the 1-Tok Kaunselim Helpim Lain – a phrase they translate into English as “Friends helping friends” – took its first phone call three year ago, they’ve received 13,000 calls from people reaching out for help. Most of these calls have been from women, seeking advice or looking for support services near to their homes. The counsellors will listen, guide and inform them of where to go and what they can do. However, almost half the calls are from men. “Most of them are looking to find their families and reunite,” explains Lua. “You know, in PNG society, it’s like, if I strike my woman, she takes the children, goes to the brothers, and stays with the brothers. And for me to go there, there’s a possibility that they will bash me up. So I have to look for ways to bring them back. I have to get down on my knees and say sorry, I will not do this again. I will have to somehow compensate them to get them back. Men especially, those who are calling in, they have gone to rock bottom. They have nowhere to go to seek help. They want to change.

Lua says some of the worst calls he receives concern people accused of witchcraft. That person’s life is in danger, and often that extends to their whole family, including children. “Everyone in the family is blamed,” says Lua. “Even the innocent ones are considered part of it.”

Wesh Siku, ChildFund Papua New Guinea’s Project Coordinator, explains that the government is developing legislation around sorcery, but Western perceptions captured in formal law clash with Papua New Guinean world-views. In such cases, it’s hard to intervene, as even the police are at risk of being caught up in the retribution and risk attack themselves. “We get survivors and informers ringing in,” says Lua. “Our response is to help people open their minds up, but it’s very hard. Those that ring in, we try to help them find ways to guide them to the right places where they can get help.”

The Counsellors understand that their input is just one small part of a problem that needs to be dealt with holistically. For instance, solving the problem of violence against children must start with the whole family. Says, Lua, “If you just look at children, or solving what the children are facing, we will miss the mark. We have to go down to the roots of what is causing people to violate children. So we will have to go down to the families. We would have to educate… do awareness… run trainings to families, knowledge management seminars or pre-natal seminars. If we educate the right people, then we have educated the whole family. That family will advocate for good marriages, good values and all that.”

In recent years, the problem of sexual abuse in PNG has become worse, making PNG one of the least safe places in the world to be a woman. “I would say that before, it was not this bad,” says Lua. “Our cultural values are no longer there, because of the influences nowadays. People learn things through media and internet, and they are looking at things from there and they are doing it. So in the villages, there was respect for the leaders, the elders, the women. And because of all these cultural influences, they learn other ways and it’s influencing what they want to do today.”

Wesh also blames the media and internet. “In some parts of Papua New Guinea, people treat women very special. Land, very special. They wouldn’t try to abuse their women and children. If they do that, it’s trouble. But back, back in the day, this situation we are talking about earlier is not there. But because of the outside influences, this has happened.”

The solution is partly better policies, and more education. “You have to look at it from a holistic place. The families, the church, the schools, the communities. You have to educate them. And I think the government will have a major role – we can have good legislation and policies about families, and I think that would really help. And the churches too, so we would have to look at it from the holistic point of view addressing child violence.”

Wesh adds that NGOs are doing a very good job. “I think what the government are not doing, the NGOs are doing it.” But the need is huge, and the hotline is just one small contribution. “Against the need that’s out there, there’s only a few that are calling in, and that’s a concern,” says Lua. “There are lots of them outside there who are really struggling.”

Adds Wesh, “It’s just the tip of the iceberg. The massive layer is still under the sea.”

Listen: PNG helpline says violence affects everyone

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