Crying Meri: Violence Against Women in Papua New Guinea

The international spotlight is on the small Melanesian nation of Papua New Guinea where the level of violence against women is among the highest in the world. Some 70 percent of women in Papua New Guinea will be raped or physically assaulted in their lifetime, according to Jenny Hayward-Jones, a researcher at Sydney's Lowy Institute think tank.

Russian born photographer Vlad Sokhin has been documenting the results of this violence against women since 2012 through a project called "Crying Meri." (Meri is Pidgin for women.) He shares his portraits of the victims and shares their stories, as they were told to him. All photos courtesy Vlad Sokhin

Helena Michael, 40, and A mother of seven children, told Sokhin she was attacked by a man she believed to be a "cannibal" near the Boroko police station, in the central part of Port Moresby, Dec. 27, 2011, the photographer said. Sokhin said that she told him according to the account, the attacker bit off her lower lip and wanted to sink his teeth into her throat. She managed to escape by kicking her assailant in his groin and biting three of his fingers,forcing him to release her. Sokhin said Michael told him that police arrested the man and found out that it was his third attempt to eat human flesh.

These figures out of PNG are all too familiar. A string of particularly violent sorcery-related crimes (where a woman is raped, killed or maimed after being thought to be a witch) and gang-rapes earlier this year, caused an outcry from the international community. In February, a 20-year-old mother was stripped, tortured, and set on fire after being accused of witchcraft, reports AFP. In April, an elderly woman was beheaded for the same reason.

The United Nations spoke out against these attacks, urging the government in PNG to take action. Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, Rashida Manjoo visited the country and "reported alarming incidents of violence perpetrated against persons accused of sorcery and witchcraft, with women being affected disproportionally, particularly widows or other women with no family to protect them," according to the UN.

Hellen Alphons, about 38, lost her leg in 2005 in a fight with her drunk husband, Alai Kawa, Sokhin said that she told him. According to the account, Alai chopped off her right leg with a bush knife in front of their young children, who later called for help, Sokhin reported. Even though her husband was arrested by police, she told Sokhin that she felt she needed to leave her home in fear that he might be released. She did not return until 2010 when found out that Alai died in prison. Often a rape victim cannot afford to pay for the medical statement to prove that she was raped, said Sokhin, adding that the she is also expected to pay for fuel for the police vehicle. What's more, he said, the police can be easily bribed by the perpetrators.

In May, Prime Minister Peter O'Neill publicly apologized to victims of sexual and domestic violence and vowed to repeal the 1971 Sorcery Act, which criminalized sorcery and made it a defense in murder cases, reported the NY Times. The act was repealed last week, allowing sorcery-related killings to be treated as murders under the law. While this is a huge win for human rights activists, many in the international community were disheartened that parliament also reinstated the death penalty, unused since 1954. Rape, robbery and murder are now crimes that can draw a death sentence, according to the NY Times.

"These are very tough penalties, but they reflect the seriousness of the nature of the crimes and the demand by the community for parliament to act," said Daniel Korimbao, a spokesman for the prime minister.

Richard Bal 45, shows the disfigured ear of his wife Agita Bal, 32, in the Morobe block, Port Moresby, reports Sokhin. In December of 2010 after coming home drunk, Sokhin said that Agita told him that Richard took a bush-knife and cut half of her left ear. He spent one night in the police station and was released the next morning due to "insufficient evidence" to initiate criminal proceedings, she said. Agita's relatives didn't allow her to leave Richard, having received about 240 USD from him for the "potential damage." Sokhin said.

Some activists fear that this may lead to more murders of rape victims, in attempts at leaving no trail of evidence. Jeffrey Buchanan from UN Women in PNG says there is concern that the death penalty "may push sorcery and witchcraft related attacks back behind the veil of silence," reports ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation). "I have concerns about woman who are raped that … [it] may lead to their murder," he said.

"Papua New Guinea has taken one step forward in protecting women from violence by repealing the Sorcery Act, but several giant steps back by moving closer to executions," said Isabelle Arradon, Amnesty's deputy director for the Asia-Pacific.

The mutilated hands of Rasta Twa, around 60-years-old, are shown. Sokhin said that she told him that she was accused of being a sorcerer by people from her village, after the death of a young man in 2003. During the funeral, which gathered all the villagers, the crowd surrounded Rasta and began to beat her severely, strangling her with a rope and wielding axes, bush knives and wooden sticks, she told Sokhin. Rasta managed to escape and ran into her house, where she was caught up by one of the pursuers, Sokhin reported. Rasta managed to survive that day, but told Sokhin that she had to leave the village for good.

Sokhin, the photographer, is currently participating in a three-day conference at The Australian National University in Canberra. He said he is presenting his research and photographs to other academics from varied backgrounds including law, anthropology, gender and human rights, as well as policy-makers, legal officers, human rights activists, members of church organizations and non-governmental organizations from the Pacific Islands region. The hope is to engage in constructive dialogue to develop practical and workable solutions to the negative societal issues posed by belief in sorcery and witchcraft, and particularly the problem of sorcery and witchcraft-related killings.

Weapons confiscated from Raskol gang members during attacks on women are shown, from the Top Town police station, Sexual Offences Squad, Lae town, Morobe Province, reported Sokhin.

"The reintroduction of the death penalty was a simplistic response to a very complex problem," Richard Eves, an Australian anthropologist who specializes in PNG, told TIME. "There are more than 800 different cultures in PNG, and belief in sorcery is pervasive across most of them." According to TIME, Eves hopes that, at the conference, they can develop more sophisticated alternatives for helping to stop the sorcery-related violence.

Left: A prison cell of the Boroko police station is mostly filled with murderers and rapists, according to Sokhin. Right: Rachel Philip, 21, right, is shown with her two daughters Matilda, 4, and Inet, 8 months, at the City Mission refugee center in Port Moresby. Sokhin said that she told him that she ran away from her husband, a policeman, who beat her nearly every day, often threatening her with a bush-knife or a gun. Rachel and the girls share a room with 13-year-old Deslin Max, left, who Sokhin said told him she was a victim of sexual abuse by a stranger on the street of the PNG capital.

Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea, averages 54 murders per 100,00 inhabitants, according to InfoGlobe, making it one of the most dangerous places in the world. Rape, robbery, pickpockets, armed robberies, carjackings, and the stoning of vehicles occur in and around the city.

Doring Kande, 23, and five months pregnant, lost her unborn baby after she was brutally beaten by her husband in her abdomen area, Sokhin said that she told him, adding that her husband expelled her from the house, but later came to the hospital to take her back.

Omsy Evo'o Koivi, 31, ex-member of "Kips Kaboni" ("Red Devils") Raskol gang, sits with his wife Carol Koivi, 24, in their house. Sokhin reports that Omsy was a rapist and a thief, but few years ago he left his gang activities and became a bass guitarist. His band "Amua Durupu" has won international awards, Sokhin said. After he quit the gang, he also stopped beating his wife, Sokhin said that he told him. However, Omsy reportedly added that he keeps his handmade gun for family protection, as they still live in Kaugeri settlement - the most dangerous place of Port Moresby.

Andres Sime, 39, awaits his trial, having been accused of multiple rapes, at the Boroko police station, in Port Moresby, reports Sokhin.

Zelma Kalamendi, 36, is shown in the emergency section of the Angau Memorial General Hospital, where she was taken after she was brutally assaulted on the streets of Lae town, in Morobe Province, Sokhin said that she told him. Zelma said she was attacked in the early morning, April 26, 2012, near the Aviat nightclub, by members of the Raskol gang, who beat her with bludgeons and bush knives and then raped in front of the security guards, according to Sokhin.

Police officer Job Eremugo shows Sokhin, the photo of a woman who is a victim of domestic violence, reports Sokhin. Sokhin said that the officer told him that at least three women report being assaulted by their husbands or strangers every day, at the Boroki Police Station.

Peter Umba Moses, 32, is according to Sokhin one of the leaders of the "Dirty Dons 585" Raskol gang. Sokhin said that he told him that raping women is a "must" for the young members of the gang. He said that he has raped more than 30 women and that three of them were murdered, according to Sokhin. He claims, though, that he has not been involved in any crimes for over a year, but is still giving criminal advice to the young members of the gang.