The attack that highlighted an epidemic of abuse

Eufemia Didonato

Before last week, Debbie Kaore was best known in Papua New Guinea as a champion boxer who won gold at the Pacific Games in 2015 and had recently made a career-changing move to rugby. Then last Friday, a video was widely shared on social media that showed Ms Kaore being […]

Before last week, Debbie Kaore was best known in Papua New Guinea as a champion boxer who won gold at the Pacific Games in 2015 and had recently made a career-changing move to rugby.

Then last Friday, a video was widely shared on social media that showed Ms Kaore being violently attacked with a hot iron in her home. The video was posted on TikTok and Instagram by her friend, with permission, and went viral. Ms Kaore’s partner Murray Oa, a lieutenant in the Papua New Guinean army, was arrested and charged with grievous bodily harm.

Graphic pictures showed terrible injuries on the rugby player’s face and body. “I realised if I didn’t get out of our room, he would burn me alive,” she said in an interview with the BBC.

The footage of her Ms Kaore’s assault has shone a light on the extent of domestic abuse in Papua New Guinea, and led to statements of support for her from the UN and the nation’s Prime Minister James Marape, who urged Papua New Guinea’s men to “leave that lady alone”.

But too many of the nation’s women would have been able to empathise with what they saw in the video. As many as two-thirds have experienced domestic violence, according to one study by the UN.

Short presentational grey line
Short presentational grey line

Ms Kaore started seeing Mr Oa just over a year ago. The first attack happened when she was about two months pregnant, she told the BBC. “And from then on he continued to verbally, mentally and emotionally abuse me,” she said. “I was psychologically breaking down.”

On 4 June, she posted a video on the app TikTok. It was a response to a video posted by her sister’s ex-boyfriend, creating a duet which showed the two in split-screen – a feature of the app. Happy with the result, she shared it via her Whatsapp status.

She told the BBC that Mr Oa saw it while out having drinks, and returned home shortly after.

“I saw him parking the car across the road, and noticed that he looked uneasy,” Ms Kaore recalled. “He came in, walked up to me and asked for my phone so he could send an email. So I gave it to him, and he went into our room and viewed my WhatsApp video again.”

She said he called her into the room and started questioning her about the video. “But as I started showing him my phone, he punched me down and picked up the iron,” she said.

Mr Oa burned her across the face and stomach with the iron, she said, and headbutted her, while demanding to see her Facebook account.

Her two sons from a previous relationship, both younger than 10, saw the attack. She managed to escape through a back door and call her father, who picked her up and took her to hospital.

“I got burned by an iron and then hit by it while our children watched,” she wrote on social media afterwards. “A victim to Lt. Murry Oa … I am putting this out here cause this has gone too far. I can only hope that there won’t be another victim after me.”

Ms Kaore released images of her injuries
Ms Kaore released images of her injuries

With Mr Kaore’s permission, one of her friends posted footage of the attack online the following day. It went viral, forcing to the surface conversations about the country’s widespread domestic violence problem.

Mr Oa was arrested and charged with grievous bodily harm. He has yet to comment on the incident.

The prime minister, among other high profile figures, released statements condemning not just Debbie’s attacker but domestic abuse in general. Papua New Guinea’s Olympic Committee and Rugby Association both spoke out in support of Debbie too.

But what happened to her was not a one off. In 2016, the charity Human Rights Watch called Papua New Guinea one of the most dangerous countries in the world for women and girls. The violence is so systemic that many women don’t seek help until it’s too late, said Kate Schuetze, Pacific researcher at Amnesty International.

“It becomes so normalised in society and in culture that people don’t think to get help when they experience abuse,” she told the BBC. “The day-to-day levels of violence are extremely high. Often only once a woman needs serious medical help will they seek help or try to escape that relationship.”

For people outside Papua New Guinea’s cities, there barriers to seeking help are particularly high. About 80% of the country’s population lives in rural areas with little access to emergency or other supportive services.

One woman was forced to walk for five days from a rural part of the country’s Highlands to reach hospital, after a severe assault, Ms Schuetze said.

“There are a lot of rural areas around there that don’t have good transport infrastructure, which is why she had to walk. But she said to me that if she hadn’t gotten out of that situation, she wouldn’t have lived.”

Women facing domestic abuse are also trapped by financial obstacles. In parts of Papua New Guinea, significant sums of money – known as a “bride price” – are paid to a groom by the bride’s family. There is a fear that if a woman escapes, her family will be expected to repay the sum to her husband.

And widespread drug and alcohol abuse among men was also a part of the problem, said Professor Judy Atkinson, the founder of We Al-li, a group which works with indigenous communities in Australia and Papua New Guinea.

“It’s a major problem in the community,” she said. “They’re being marketed on the streets in Papua New Guinea – and that creates violence, and leads to a culture of violence.”

Debbie Kaore, second from the right, is a rugby star and champion boxer
Debbie Kaore, second from the right, is a rugby star and champion boxer

In 2013, Papua New Guinea passed the Family Protection Act, criminalising domestic violence and allowing victims to obtain protection orders. It became law four years later, but enforcement remains “weak and inconsistent”, according to Human Rights Watch.

Complaints of intimate partner violence are often not taken seriously by the police, or the officers involved lack the training to deal with the case effectively and sensitively, said Ms Schuetze. Papua New Guinea’s police force is relatively small, and a lack of legal support can make it too costly for many to seek justice through the courts.

A 2019 report by the charity said police and prosecutors “rarely pursued investigations or criminal charges against people who commit family violence – even in cases of attempted murder, serious injury, or repeated rape – and instead prefer to resolve such cases through mediation and/or payment of compensation”.

Ms Kaore said she hoped the unusually high level of coverage prompted by her assault last week would hasten change.

“I’m thankful for the love and support I’m getting from all over the world. Knowing I’m not alone in this means so much to me and my family,” she said.

“I can only hope things will change after this. I hope to see that people can be educated properly and learn to respect one another, and change their mindsets.”

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