Monday, 3 May 2010

Women abusing women

Nothing stuns me more than hearing about women hurting, exploiting and tourmenting other women. For some reason, I expect the default female empathy to kick in and stop such cruelty.

I thought people usually hurt people who weren't like them. It made it easier not to empathise with the victim and allow the destruction to persist. Obviously, people hurt people who are like them and who are not like them. It's the problem of the person hurting them.

Hearing that mothers will assist in holding down their daughters while their genitals are mutilated, with full knowledge of the consequences since it happened to them too, I can not fathom the rationalisation that makes that ok. For me, I can stand back and say I don't understand the cultures in which these happen. That it is something that should be stopped but maybe the women participating have some logical reason for doing so. Of course, that reasoning escapes me but I put it down to culture.

When the crimes by women against women occur in the belly of a culture I fully understand, that is when my mind can not allocate it to the us and them way of thinking.

Mistreatment of women in Papua New Guinea is rife. Men beat their wives while drunk or sober. Men beat their mistresses. Women beat their husbands mistresses. Women beat their sisters in law. This is standard behaviour.

Only recently, shelters for women have been established to give women and their children some way to escape the violence and constant threat to their lives. There aren't many shelters. Certainly not enough to help all who need help. Even if there were, would you end up with a generation of women living in quasi refuge camps away from their oppressors who are also their families. I don't know about you but there is a hell of a lot I will tolerate from family. It's the way we were built as human beings. No one wants to be alone. Being without family in a society where that is your only social safety net is unthinkable. So, where do you go? What do you do?

The most recent tales to sadden my ears are of village girls who are basically used as slaves in the big cities of Papua New Guinea. Where I was born, education was not a right but a privilege. One that you studied hard for and paid through the teeth for. Yeah, there are public schools but the fees are high. They are equivalent to public school fees here except that people there earn a tenth of what we do and their money is worth less. Every year of primary school and high school has an important exam at the end. Students must receive a passing grade for the exam or they will not progress. If there is space in the next year, they can repeat the grade. Every year school fees must be paid upfront or the child can not enter the school. The usual outcome of a failed exam is for the child to drop out and let their siblings continue in the hope the the concentrated investment will allow the next one to do better. Just one successful member from a family can ensure the survival of the entire family, over it's multiple generations.

In the village, there is never much money. They have food from fishing, hunting and gardening but that doesn't enable much more than subsistence. The term village girl or boy is given to young adults (usually mid-teens) who have not passed school or were not able to pay for school fees. They stay at home in the village and wait to marry and continue a village life. There is not often an escape from this. The taste of the western world is given to them in their school years and then lost to them for the remainder of their natural lives.

Keep in mind that one years school fees for a student would be around A$50-75. Yes, for the entire year. For the amount of money I'd spend on a bottle of champagne, the life and lifespan of a Papua New Guinean can be limited to the hardship of living village life.

Previously, I mentioned the social safety net of the family. A Papua New Guinean talks of family in the same way we speak of an entire community. Imagine if someone in your suburb was out of a job and couldn't eat. You and your neighbors would take turns in cooking and delivering food to their house. You'd take them in to one of your spare rooms when they couldn't pay the rent. You'd lend them your car to act as a taxi and make some money. Everyone looks after everyone else.

That's the theory. Of course, any Papua New Guinean will tell you that this system can be abused. This is the wantok system. It is the basis for the social organisation of the entire country. Those connected by language are family. Corruption is a disease in that country and when it's explained to me, it always seems to sound just like the wantok system and what is so wrong with that?

Now, village girls are useful to rich city girls. They are cheap baby sitters, maids, cooks and all round helpers. It is common for city families to bring their village girl relatives out of the rural areas and in to their homes where they live for no cost as part of the family. They are asked to help out with children and housework. It is a much more promising option in their lives and often results in education, introductions to their new partners and an easier life than the village. It often feels more glamorous with mobile phones and modern hair styles. Everyone benefits and the social safety net is working.

Then comes the misuse of a reasonable system. Here comes my story. Educated city women bringing poor uneducated village girls in to their homes with the best of intentions (so, I am told). These girls then become the equivalent of wageless labour. They are now distanced from their immediate families and alone in a big city where the only people they know keep them poor and belt them if they don't obey or work hard enough.

You can sugarcoat it by saying that this is rare or that they are still better off but I think you should call slavery just that. If these young women don't have anyone close by to go for help or any money to escape back to the village then they are trapped in a life of servitude.

This is unacceptable. The fact that women are the abusers of other women leaves me heartbroken. If the most empathic members of our species start kicking the weaker versions of themselves then what hope is left.

I want to help but I feel helpless.

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