A lot of violence and a little sunshine

Today I have been reviewing the newest patient files at the Family Support Center (FSC). The cover pages of the files contain a brief description of the incident and as always, reading description after description about horrible crimes feels somewhat overwhelming...

I see numerous “beaten by husband”, but also  “beaten by her daughter’s husband’s co-wife and relatives”, “stoned by man”, “raped by unknown”, “speared by known man”, “chopped by husband”, and “stabbed by co-wife.” It is sometimes challenging to maintain the balance between the empathy that is essential for all patient care and the adequate emotional distance that is needed in order to avoid becoming too involved and, hence, emotionally exhausted.

Good team spirit and communication within the MSF expatriate team help achieve this. In addition, with the FSC national staff we have regular, confidential debriefing sessions where we discuss and ventilate feelings that have been raised by difficult and traumatic cases. The violence in this society is very much normalized and we see violence survivors with severe injuries every day. Sometimes the amount of violence, the nature of it and the triggers for it can feel absurd to me personally. It is common that even minor every-day conflicts are resolved by violence. A husband can chop his wife if she asks why he comes home late. One of our patients told us she was watching videos at her neighbor’s house without informing her husband and he beat her. Another woman’s husband got upset with the wife for selling vegetables at the local market in order to earn some money. He ordered the wife to go home and he beat her. A woman beat her husband with a stick after he asked her for money. One woman told us that the reason for her husband beating her was that she was cooking and he wanted to use the stove. He moved the pot by force and beat her.

For me who is used to other forms of conflict resolution, these events seem almost bizarre. Many people go from 0 to 100 in seconds from the smallest provocation, and then back to 0 again almost as fast. In fact, men in the local Huli culture traditionally take pride in their ability to fluctuate rapidly between extreme emotions (Wardlow, 2006). In the case of violence between married couples the violence is often triggered because of sexual jealousy (whether real or suspected) and when men perceive women have failed to complete their duties.

It is a widespread reasoning in our area that violence is needed occasionally in order to “educate” women. The triggers might be the woman not obeying the husband, talking back to him, not having the dinner ready on time, questioning the husband about money and girlfriends, refusing him sex, etc. As is often the case universally, also in this society the violence is very much gendered with the men most often being the perpetrators and women the objects for violence. However, it must be noted that women too as well often use violence (either verbal or physical) to resolve conflicts. It all has to do with the general acceptability of violence and the fact that this society tends to socialize its members to use violence rather than other means to resolve conflict.

Peaceful conflict resolution skills, as any skills, have to be learned and trained and maintained, and there is little tradition of this in Tari. Apart from all the violence, the people in Tari are among the friendliest, warmest people I have ever met. It is such a strong contrast to the violent culture. It really amazes me sometimes how these wonderful people can commit such extremely violent crimes. One of these beautiful people dropped in to my office today. I was sitting by my computer working when I saw a little face peak in at the door. It was a little six-year-old boy, who had come to the hospital with his sick father. He shyly stepped in to my office with small, muddy feet, smiled and looked curiously around. I gave him a glittery sticker (which I keep in the cupboard for our youngest patients) and then I took some paper and my color pens and we sat down and drew flowers and happy faces. Despite our communication barriers (he spoke only Huli and I do not), we had a nice moment together before he went back to his father in the ward. He left a big portion of sunshine in my room.

Reference and recommended reading about the Huli culture: Wardlow, H. (2006). Wayward Women. Sexuality and Agency in New Guinea Society. Los Angeles: University of California Press.