SYDNEY — The president of Medecins Sans Frontieres pressed Papua New Guinea's new government to address its epidemic levels of sexual and domestic violence Thursday, calling it a "humanitarian crisis".
Unni Karunakara was in the impoverished Pacific nation to visit MSF projects targeting family and sexual violence and met with officials from Prime Minister Peter O'Neill's new government to urge action on the pervasive issue.
France's MSF (Doctors Without Borders) estimates that 70 percent of women in PNG will be raped or physically assaulted in their lifetime and Karunakara said the levels of violence were unique outside a war-zone or state of civil unrest.
"There is no open warfare in the country and the violence is (inherent) in how the society negotiates disputes, how they negotiate conflict between tribes, how they negotiate relationships within the family," Karunakara told AFP by phone from the rugged Pacific nation.
"We consider it to be an ongoing humanitarian crisis."
Between its two projects in the coastal city of Lae in Morobe province and the Southern Highlands city of Tari, Karunakara said MSF would see 60 rape cases a month and some women would return time and again.
"The status of women in society is very low, women are often blamed -- if a woman is raped she is blamed for letting that happen to her," he said.
The gravity of sexual violence is made worse by the country's HIV/AIDS problem -- almost one percent of its population of nearly seven million are estimated to be living with the disease.
More than 60 percent of the infected are women and girls.
Efforts to tackle the problem to date had largely focused on the law and order response -- training police and judges -- and Karunakara said there needed to be a greater emphasis on medical and psychological support.
He met with representatives of the new O'Neill government, elected in August, to urge them to roll out more family support clinics where women can be treated and counselled, immunised against sexually transmitted diseases and offered contraception.
"The most important challenge is getting the community to accept and see the benefit of such services," Karunakara said.
The MSF chief added that his meetings had been "extremely positive" and officials had "at least expressed their support in trying to address this".
"I think now it's time to go beyond words and follow it up with some concrete action," he said.
Though it is poised for a natural resources boom driven by a massive liquefied natural gas project set to double GDP, PNG remains mired in poverty and corruption, with high rates of crime and violence.
Only 40 percent of citizens enrol in school, 5.5 percent of children die before the age of two and the average life expectancy is just 57.