***Please note this post contains references to sexual violence. ***
Written words march along the pages of reports in a procession, adhering to the same drumbeat that all reports do. They may talk about sexual violence against women, or human rights violations, or child prostitution, or war crimes. In most cases the words fail to convey the reality of the situation. But imagine if, as your eyes glance over the pages, the words peel off...first one, then ten, then hundreds of them. The black scribbles swarm around you, and you are about to gasp for air when they swish away and converge into a mass, morphing into the figure of a woman. Her eyes are shut swollen by punches, her lips bleeding, the skin on her back tattered by the gravel road she was dragged on. The words in the reports that I have read in the last few months took that form today. In flesh.
There she was, lying on the stretcher after being beaten up and tortured all night, accused by villagers of being the sorcerer responsible for the death of a child. The child, judging from the daily cases of meningitis and cerebral malaria, probably succumbed to the black magic of those illnesses. The only hex in the room, as my hands trace her bones feeling for fractures, was the animation of the written words that have stared back at me over the last few months.
Witchcraft. It is a dangerous phantom in Papua New Guinea (PNG) that conjures violence and kills at the hands of other human beings…not the hands of a witch. There are many taboos here. Misunderstandings. Old traditions mixing with new ones. Witchcraft living side by side with religion. Mostly Christianity.
Remember the woman from my previous entry... the one whose husband forced a stick inside her vagina to terminate an unwanted pregnancy? I’ve been thinking about her…and her husband. It’s hard for me to be angry with him. According to the woman, he had never hurt her before…never beaten her or raped her. Never. So what would drive him to do such a terrible act…what would lead him to hurt the woman he loves? Ignorance? Desperation? Four other children that he cannot afford to clothe, feed, or take to a healthcare provider until they have been devoured by the voodoo of disease? What is going through his mind now? Is he ashamed? Empty? Devastated? Festering with guilt?
Abortion is illegal in PNG. Unwanted pregnancies are rampant here due to rape, ignorance about contraception methods, and lack of education. Unwanted children end up born into poverty, where they enter a cycle of starvation, neglect, disease, or prostitution. A spell cast by lawmakers and religious figures that they will likely never escape.
As in other countries where abortion is illegal, maternal deaths from unsafe abortion practices are high. No one knows the real numbers, but it is thought to be one of the top causes of maternal death. Abortions are carried out at a similar rate in countries where it is legal and illegal. The difference lies in that “illegal” abortions are poison to a woman’s body…the unsafe, unsupervised procedures kill or scar her.
The decision to undergo an abortion is not an easy one for women, and it is never taken lightly. Instead of supporting that difficult decision, and creating a circle of safety, states where abortion is illegal are bogeys in these women’s lives.
It’s taken me a long time to write this entry. I felt compelled to read about the issues surrounding abortion laws and to deliberate every pro and con argument. By doing so, I have come to an important realization: there are no pros and cons. It’s a woman’s choice. You might agree with it or not, but ultimately it is her decision. No one else’s. Simple.
A religious belief imposed on a woman leading to her demise is equivalent to beating a woman in the name of witchcraft. The hand holding that stick was the hand of patriarchal law and religious benightedness.