There have been lots of stories in the news lately about domestic violence and how it is becoming endemic throughout the world. A lot of the spotlight has been on PNG, where violence against women and children has become a particularly serious problem. This week might be a good time to tell you the story of what happened to Janet.
In 1976 Janet was about four years old. At that time we were living in Boroko, a suburb of Port Moresby, and Janet and her family were part of the big mob in our boi haus at the bottom of our garden. The small shed accommodated Janet, her young brother, her parents, three single male wantoks and our haus boi, an elderly highlander who introduced himself to everybody as Poppa. Janet was the same age as my daughter and they were playmates.
One day my daughter came home with me from her childcare centre and went racing down to the boi haus, hoping to find Janet ready to play some games. She came back a few minutes later crying and distressed. Denis was home by this time and she was sobbing with shock as she told him that the wantoks had cut off one of Janet’s fingers.
We couldn’t believe that such a thing could happen in our backyard and Denis went straight down to Poppa and demanded an explanation. The area around the boi haus was crowded with wantoks and it was clear that something was going on.
Poppa explained that they had received news that day from the highlands that an old and much respected man from their village had recently died. The wantoks had gathered at Poppa’s haus and there was much wailing and carry-on but it didn’t seem like they were doing enough to show their respect for the deceased.
And there was Janet, tiny and female and completely powerless so they plonked her hand down on a log or something similar. All the grown-ups then stood around wailing while someone chopped off one of her fingers, down to the second joint. Janet screamed in earnest and then she went into a kind of deathly shock.
Denis and i were furious and disgusted by such a cruel and cowardly act but Poppa and his wantoks told us that it was none of our business, that this was the grieving custom in their village and it wasn’t our place to interfere. Janet, who had probably been born in Port Moresby and didn’t know the old fellow who had died, was chosen as the one who had to sacrifice her finger. For several months, Janet was a very solemn child but eventually we began to catch glimpses of shy little smiles.
I am telling Janet’s story all these years later because it was the terrible crime of child abuse committed against her and in choosing to do nothing about it, I condoned it. I didn’t mean to, but I did. In turning a blind eye, I showed her no respect. I’m guessing that there would be many good men and women in PNG who have found themselves in a similar situation and for whatever reason, have chosen to turn aside. Now that domestic violence and child abuse are escalating out of control we must condemn our own silence and accept our share of the blame.