I arrived in Papua New Guinea a day in early September 2012 after way too many hours travelling through way too many countries. The first I saw of the country from the airplane was green, lush forests, mountains, lonely rivers running through unsettled land.
Finally I was here! Port Moresby was chaotic, hot, humid, dusty and green all at the same time. However, I only observed a minor bit of it since my cognitive abilities were at quite a stand still after all that travel-related sleep deprivation. I received several briefings at the MSF office on the day of my arrival, but only two things stuck to my mind: 1. Always double check MSF Labor terms and conditions when the national staff asks you questions regarding job terms, and 2. The orange I was served by Head of Mission was the most delicious one I’ve had in my whole life. Luckily MSF continues briefing its field workers thoroughly throughout the first weeks of a mission so I was able catch up.
Tari – a rural, little town in Papua New Guinea’s Southern Highlands has become my home for the next nine months. Here MSF runs an emergency surgical program and a Family Support Center, my work place, where survivors of domestic and sexual violence receive medical and psychological care. The level of domestic and sexual violence in PNG is epidemic. Official data is hard to obtain due to lack of research, but it is estimated that around 70% of all PNG women face physical abuse during their lives.
Around half of PNG women are raped in their lifetime. The numbers are horrific, and the numerous individual fates feel overwhelming. At the Family Support Center we daily see women who have been beaten and chopped by their husbands, raped by family members or strangers, raped by their husbands, chopped by the husband’s co-wives. We see school girls who have been brutally raped. A while ago MSF’s international president Dr. Unni Karunakara visited our projects in PNG and said that the levels of violence are unique outside a war-zone or state of civil unrest and described the situation as an ongoing humanitarian crisis.
Facing violence traumatizes people. A main focus at the Family Support Center is to provide the violence survivors with psychological support. The staff (nurses and counselors) have quite good counseling skills and even though counseling is a novel thing for people in Tari, it feels good to notice that many patients say that they find it beneficial. At the counseling sessions the patients learn about common symptoms that people present after they have experienced violence. This helps normalize their reactions and decrease their level of anxiety. The staff also helps them to find ways of coping with the experience and the difficult feelings it gives rise to. As one can imagine, seeing such traumatized clients is emotionally very challenging, but in the end also extremely rewarding.
Here is a link to a recent video about MSF’s work in Tari, where you also can hear a patient talk about how she was helped at the Family Support Center: