Back in November, comedian Matt Okine travelled to PNG to see the meaningful progress being made to combat the horrific culture of violence against women.
While many strings number Matt Okine’s bow, they all emanate a humourous timbre. Be it on the comedy circuit, television, radio, or wading through the pool of hip-hop, we’re familiar with the tone of his work. But seldom do we register the sound of his heart being plucked. Seldom do we get a glimpse of the Matt inside.
Prior to hosting the Melbourne Comedy Festival Gala, he travelled to Wewak in rural Papua New Guinea to support Oxfam’s program of reversing the endemic problem of violence against women. A deep-rooted, visceral problem, as two-thirds of Papuan women suffer at the hands of domestic violence, a figure which soars to a mind-reeling 90% in rural areas. While the PNG government has vowed to combat the problem on a legislative level, the narrative walks by itself. As it stands, waves of violence have washed over the rural areas, with victims attacked on the suspicion of practicing witchcraft (known locally as saguma), encompassing the spectrum of abuse, torture, unfortunately cresting all the way to murder.
In a 2015 report, the Human Rights Watch said “sorcery accusations all too often become a form of family violence, with abusive husbands … using sorcery accusations to silence and control women.”
Since then, the PNG government has allocated K10million towards sorcery awareness programs, a fight for re-education that Okine and Oxfam have since joined.
Speaking to The Big Smoke, Matt recalled what he saw in PNG: “Something that really impressed me on my trip to Wewak was seeing how much local people, and especially strong, local women, are leading Oxfam’s work in Papua New Guinea to tackle the problem of gender-based violence. Local people coming up with local solutions to local problems is how genuine change is made.”
Sadly, the steps to this point have been caustic, and bitter to the senses. In November 2017, a girl of six was hospitalised after members of her community tortured her with hot knives on the basis that she’d practice saguma as her mother did, who herself was burned alive on the suspicion of witchcraft back in 2013.
While we’re sheltered from that reality by a vast ocean, Matt met the faces of the most affected. Reflecting on that shared company, he stated: “…some of the stories of gender-based violence were confronting and the issue is obviously very complex, but hearing the ways communities are addressing this and the generational changes that are taking place, particularly as more women take up leadership positions, is inspiring. I definitely felt a sense of hopefulness from the people I met.”
It’s a herculean task, but one Okine believes is truly worth the effort, and maximal exposure. Casting an eye toward a safer, better future for Papuan communities, Matt articulated up the verdant landscape of tomorrow, stating: “…Oxfam and its partner organisations are working to address this issue from so many different angles, which I think is why progress is being made. They’re working on the ground in communities to offer people counselling, mediation, safe refuge, and income and legal support, but also working with various levels of government and with men, boys and community leaders to change attitudes towards women and girls. I felt really inspired seeing their work firsthand.”