Exchange Program Helps Lawyer Tailor Plan to Address Domestic Violence in Papua New Guinea

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March 2013

“Domestic violence is a pressing issue in Papua New Guinea, and this is evident in the number of cases we deal with,” says Helen Roalakona, a young attorney with the country’s prosecution office. “In a month, we receive about six to 10 criminal cases from the committal courts for trial in the National Court. Of this number, at least five will be related to offenses arising from such crimes.” The prevalence of domestic violence (DV) in Papua New Guinea (PNG), the frequency with which Helen encounters such crimes in her work, and her desire to better address DV issues were some of the factors that led her to apply for the ABA Rule of Law Initiative’s (ABA ROLI’s) Pacific Fellows Women’s Rights Program.

Helen Roalakona, Legal Officer with the Office of the Public Prosecutor Waigani, Papua New Guinea

Helen Roalakona, legal officer with the Office of the Public Prosecutor Waigani, Papua New Guinea.

While DV has long been a problem in the Pacific region, it is only within the last decade that nations have begun to make significant progress in addressing the issue. Initiatives have included new legislation and training programs for judges, law enforcement officers and attorneys. Yet, many Papua New Guineans continue to view DV crimes as private family issues or “bedroom affairs,” stances that are exacerbated by a general lack of awareness, inadequate victims’ services, and ineffective enforcement of DV laws. ABA ROLI’s Pacific fellows program works to address these issues by facilitating U.S.-based exchange programs for young Pacific Islander legal professionals. The fellows are paired with DV-focused non-governmental organizations focused in Washington, DC, and are assigned a mentor. Over the course of the six-week program, the fellows, like Helen, learn about U.S. approaches to addressing DV, share challenges they face in their home countries, and build a network of legal professionals both in the U.S. and in the Pacific that are committed to ending DV.   

During her stay in Washington, Helen says her ultimate goal was to “learn from the experience of the United States and develop a response to DV that is suited to the needs and culture of the Pacific.” To achieve this, Helen was mentored by Claudia Gwilliam at the DC Volunteer Lawyers Project (DCVLP). DCVLP provides pro bono legal services to DV victims, assisting them with civil protection orders and with custody and divorce cases. Claudia says that the “opportunity to engage in a cultural exchange specifically about the topic of DV was a great way to do something on behalf of the international DV community.”

During the program, each fellow is tasked with developing one or more projects that have the potential for direct application in their home countries. Helen initially planned to develop a method that would help lawyers prepare DV victims to serve as witnesses in court; however, after learning about DCVLP’s approach, her focus shifted from viewing DV simply as a criminal matter to seeing it as a social problem in need of a coordinated community response.

“We cannot continue to keep domestic violence a bedroom affair,” Helen says. “It affects the fundamental basis of society—the family—and when the family is in disharmony, then so is society.” Based on this understanding, she created a system and materials that help stakeholders from across disciplines help DV victims—as a first step in dealing with their abuser—access civil recourse by obtaining a restraining order.

Both Helen and Claudia felt the six weeks flew by much too quickly. Helen not only departed the US with a newly focused goal, new friends and a network of legal professionals that spans thousands of miles, but also with a work product that she felt confident could make a difference in her country. Claudia says she particularly enjoyed the international insights Helen brought about DV. “On the whole, the DCVLP really benefitted from meeting the fellows and learning about their work to end DV in their home countries,” she says. “Hearing their stories helps put our daily work into perspective.”

Since Helen’s return back to Papua New Guinea, she has maintained regular e-mail communication with Claudia and has already begun implementing her project on restraining orders.  

To learn more about the ABA Rule of Law Initiative’s work in Papua New Guinea, contact us at rol@americanbar.org.  

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