News from the Region
Market Day in Papua New Guinea brings steady flow of harassment for women
Story by: Annie Kelly, The Guardian
Every morning, Serah Thomas gets up early and makes her way to Gordon’s market in Papua New Guinea’s capital, Port Moresby. Like many of the women who make up 80% of the city’s vendors, she is entirely reliant on the income she generates selling produce at the sprawling and chaotic markets scattered throughout the capital.
“Without the markets, I would have no way of feeding my children,” she says. “There are many, many women like me in Port Moresby, single mothers who have nobody else to rely on. I have no choice but to go.”
It’s not the work that fills Thomas with dread as she ties up her hair and makes her way to the bus with a bag of things to sell. It’s the harassment, theft and violence that she will have to navigate during the day.
Markets are not safe for female traders. Women are bullied by market security, intimidated by police and sexually harassed throughout the day. A toilet trip is not to be made on your own. People try to rob them on their way to the bus stop. Poor street lighting and unreliable public transport increase their vulnerability as they try to get home.
“Over the years, we have all faced many problems at the markets: people cutting our bags and stealing our wallets, drunks chasing us. We have all experienced a lot of violence,” says Thomas. “Every day we are scared for our lives and worry that the next day something will happen to us. It is very stressful.”
The violence faced by women in the markets is a reflection of Papua New Guinea’s epidemic of gender-based violence. The island is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a woman, with an estimated 70% experiencing rape or assault.
In 2011, the capital was chosen as a pilot location in the UN Women’s safe cities initiative, a global attempt to address rising levels of violence against women in urban and public spaces.
“It isn’t enough to say there is a culture of impunity around violence against women in all public spaces in Papua New Guinea. It is routine and for many people it remains just part of the fabric of everyday life,” says Jurgita Sereikaite, from UN Women’s Papua New Guinea office.
A study in 2011-12 to assess the scale of the problem found that 55% of women had experienced violence in markets in the previous year. The survey also highlighted poor sanitation in markets: the dilapidated toilets posed health and safety concerns and in areas around bus stations vendors felt particularly vulnerable to assault.
“The women’s responses acted a bit like a map for us,” says Kay Kaugla, the gender officer at the National Capital District Commission. “We understood what we were facing.”
“When we first went to the markets to tell the women about [the safe cities] programme, it was very tough – they were suspicious and scared. When they realised that they were going to have a say in what needs to change, they became positive,” she says.
After a shaky start, more than 3,000 women formed 12 vendor associations, each with an elected spokesperson to represent their concerns to local authorities.
“There was this perception among many in government that these women were just voiceless poor women who didn’t need to be listened to,” says Kaugla. “This was what we wanted to challenge. We are trying to show that these women are entrepreneurs, small business owners and have rights that must be protected.”
For the next two years, the vendor associations took part in consultations to overhaul one of the markets, Geheru, and build a space that was safer for female vendors. The bathrooms and showers were updated, market stalls and shaded areas were renovated, potable running water was provided, and a playground was built.
When it reopened in 2014, the market trialled a cashless method to allow vendors to pay their market fees through mobile phones. It was introduced to stop women being harassed for illegal fees by market officials and men posing as tax collectors.
An ambitious rebuild of Papua New Guinea’s largest urban market, Gordon’s, is now slowly under way.
Although there has been no official assessment of whether violence has decreased since the rebuild at Geheru, female vendors say it has made an enormous difference. Whether this can be replicated at Gordon’s is another matter. The market has become a focal point for rape, mugging and gang violence and the scale of the work needed has already caused significant delays.
Women working at Gordon’s say the wider problem of corruption and discrimination must be tackled.
“The police are our biggest problem,” says Mary Boi, a vendor at Gordon’s. “Even after the safe city project came to our market and encouraged us to report our problems to the police, they didn’t listen and the men who abused us would be back in the market and harassing us again. The police also threatened and intimidated us.”
In an effort to tackle this, training on women’s rights has begun with local police forces based close to the markets. There is now a dedicated member of staff working solely on policing issues within the safe cities team.
“All we want is a safe place to work,” says Boi. “These markets are bad places for women to be. We just want this to change so we can spend our days in peace, not looking over our shoulders fearing what will happen next.”
Thomas, now president of the mini-goods vendors’ association at Gordon’s, is upbeat. “A few years ago, nobody cared what we thought; now they are designing a market to make things better,” she says. “That is progress.”