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Lys Anzia – WNN Features

Woman victim of domestic violence walks with a missing leg

Papua New Guinea native Helen, a strong survivor of extreme domestic violence, works the soil with a shovel outside her home where she lives with her sister and her children. Image: Vlad Sokhin

(WNN) Brooklyn, New York, UNITED STATES, AMERICAS: A new Kickstarter book publishing campaign by Fotoevidence, uses photography to draw attention to human rights violations, injustice, oppression and assaults on sovereignty or human dignity wherever they may occur. The campaign also highlights the courage and fortitude of 34-year-old Papuan native Helen Alphons who walks with a rudimentary crutch near her home.

Helen lost her leg in 2005 in a fight with her drunk husband, Alai Kawa in an act of severe domestic violence. During an argument that became critically violent, Alai chopped out Helen’s right leg with a bushknife in front of their young children, who later called for help. Alai Kawa was arrested by police, but Helen left her home with her children after she received medical treatment with the fear that her husband might be released.

She came back home only in 2010 when she found out that Alai died in prison. Nowadays she lives together with Alai’s sister and they both run a small shop in Kundiawa town, Simbu Province.

Called “Crying Meri” the Kickstarter campaign is set to create a new photography book that will show how women’s strength and endurance in PNG – Papua New Guinea has been a big part of the journey for Russian photojournalist Vlad Sokhin, who lives and travels between his home in Lisbon, Portugal and his location in Port Moresby.

Only a few months after the February 2013 release of Sokhin’s important work on WNN – Women News Network highlighting an interview between Sokhin and Fotoevidence founder and award-winning photojournalist for WNN Svetlana Bachevanova, the work to expose the atrocities facing women in Papua New Guinea brought international attention to the issue of violence against women. As citizens inside PNG, along with human rights activists outside the region, demanded a swift and direct response from the PNG government to enact legislation, the demands were successful.

The police were given legal power for the first time in Papua to make an immediate arrest of a perpetrator during an emergency domestic violence call.

In May 2013 PNG’s President Peter O’Neill also made a formal apology to women in the region who have suffered under severe domestic violence. He also vowed to lift the unfair 1971 Sorcery Act, a law that has been used for decades as an excuse to punish women violently after they have been falsely accused of witchcraft.

In early June 2013 the Sorcery Act was repealed, but with it came added concern by human rights advocates that the PNG Parliament also reinstated the death penalty, a policy that had been overturned since the 1950s.

“On 18 September 2013, the Papua New Guinean Government passed the Family Protection Bill 2013 with a landslide 65-0 vote,” said Amnesty International in their media release Good news: Family protection laws passed in PNG.

Sokhin’s photo-journalistic work was also picked up actively in 2013 by the United Nations agency dedicated to protect children worldwide, UNICEF along with UN super agency UN Women, as well as Amnesty International, who began reporting on issues covering critical violence against women in PNG in 2006.

“This is testimony to the power of art and creativity to expose, open eyes and enlighten. By backing the publication of the photobook Crying Meri in hardcover and for iPad you can be part of this creative process at the intersection of art and humanity,” outlines Fotoevidence in their current Kickstarter campaign.

With a recent chance to follow-up with Sokhin one-on-one as he shared his experiences as a photojournalist in Papua New Guinea human rights journalist Lys Anzia, who is also founder and executive editor for WNN, asked some of the important questions for global women advocates who want to bring the issues of sustainability in the protection of women who face ongoing violence at home to the front of the discussion.

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Lys Anzia with WNN: When your photographs began to get attention worldwide, especially at the United Nations, what was your goal?

Vlad Sokhin: When I came to PNG for the first time, I’ve been thinking of just highlighting gender based violence issue in a photo-essay. The level of violence against women in PNG is among the highlest in the world, but despite that there were not much photographic documentations of this.

I don’t know why, I’ve seen many similar projects from Congo or Venezuela, but it seemed to me that international media wasn’t very interested in situation in Papua New Guinea. So when the UN and other NGOs started promote my work and invited me to collaborate with them, I was very happy that they found my “Crying Meri” project interesting and gave me their resources to continue working on it.

Vlad Sokhin photography exhibition

During a photography exhibition hosted by the University of Papua New Guinea along with the United Nations in PNG, attendees view images by photojournalist Vlad Sokhin they will never forget in November 14-18, 2012. Image: OHCHR/MadNESS

WNN: Did you face personal danger getting the photos that are part of the new book project by Fotoevidence called “Crying Meri”?

VL: Yes I did. PNG is not an easy country, its’ capital Port Moresby is always included in 10 most dangerous cities in the world. You can’t just walk in the streets showing your camera. While I’ve been working on this project, I’ve been attacked several times, mostly by “raskols” – infamous PNG criminals. Twice people were shooting at me.

In some remote areas of PNG there is no police, often people under the influence of alcohol or drugs make so-called “road blocks” and ask for money if you want to pass. Last year dozen of drunk people were threatening me with machetes on such ‘road block’. But fortunately I never was robbed or injured, maybe my ability to speak Tok Pisin, the local language, helped me to manage the situation.

WNN: In reaching the public more than ever, have you ever thought of doing a follow-up to see how some of the women you photographed in Papua are currently doing?

VL: I always doing follow ups. I have photographed many women, with some of them I became friends. If I have a chance I always visit the people I’ve photographed, give them photos, share news. Working with some of my subjects for a long time, coming back to their homes again and again, I was able to understand better the challenges they face every day.

For example, in April 2012 I met and photographed Dini Korul, one of the sorcery related violence survivor. She was accused of witchcraft by people from her village. She survived the brutal attack, spent 10 month at the hospital and were expelled from her village for good. When I met her for the first time, she was hiding in her house, only her immediate family knew that she came back home.

During the next two years I was coming back to Dini to check how is she and first found that the community accepted her back, then I learned that she had threats to her life again and moved to another province. Recently I found that her relatives from another province didn’t accept her, so she came back to her home village. She still lives there with a stigma of sorcery accusations.

But the things are changing, the UN and some NGO’s work with victims and survivors, many of those organisations use my photos and videos. So I hope that the upcoming book will be another tool for raising awareness on this issue and I want to give some copies of the book to Dini and other survivors and local human rights defenders.

WNN: Was there ever a time when you wanted to jump beyond the photographer’s wall to help these women yourself?

VL: Yes, I wanted to help every women I photographed, but I’m just a photographer, my job is to document what happening. However, my photos helped at least two women. One of them, Helen Michael, was attacked by a “cannibal”, who bit off her lip. I showed her portrait to ChildFund and they in partnership with Interplast managed to help Helen, last October she went thought plastic surgery and her lip was patched.

Helen is [now] promoting women’s rights among people of her settlement.

Another women, mama Rasta, lost her arm in a brutal sorcery attack. I’ve been showing her photos to many doctors and finally with help of local women’s advocates we managed to bring her to an American doctor, who gave her a new prosthetic hand. Those are only two happy end cases I’m aware of, but they inspire me to work more in the field of human rights photography.

Nowadays images don’t stop wars, but they definitely help to change lives of some individuals for better.

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In a region where violence against women is common, Papua New Guinea residents Helen, Kay and Rose share their experiences surviving horrific acts of violence. This video created by photojournalist Vlad Sokhin is life-changing. It also highlights the incredible work of ChildFund Australia, who has launched three major intitiatives in PNG, a mobile health clinic, health and safety hotline and an education campaign – to end the epidemic of domestic and sexual violence in the Pacific nation. In addition to the outstanding work of Sokhin, this video has been created thanks to Taina, Helen and Kay, with ChildFund Papua New Guinea, Haus Ruth at City Mission and editing by Jose Luis Fernandez. For more information go to childfund.org.au.

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For more information on this topic:

Papua New Guinea Violence Against Women: Not Inevitable, Never Acceptable!,” Amnesty International, September 2006;
Gender, Ritual and Social Formation in West Papua,“ KITLV Press with the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies, January 2010;

Statement by Ms. Rashida Manjoo, Special Rapporteur on violence Against Women, its causes and consequences,” UN Commission on the Status of Women, Fifty-Sixth Session, February 2012;

Enough is Enough! Testimonies of Papuan Women Victims of Violence and Human Rights Violations 1963-2009,” Documentation Working Group on Violence and Human Rights Violations Against Papuan Women, 2009-2010 with the National Commission on Violence Against Women (Women Commission), Women Working Group of Papuan People’s Assembly and the International Center for Transtitional Justice (ICTJ) Indonesia with support from HIVOS and the Swiss Embassy, March 2012.

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Vlad Sokhin (Russia/Portugal) is a documentary photographer, videographer and multimedia producer, based in Lisbon and Port Moresby. In his work Vlad covers social, environmental and cultural issues around the world, including post-conflict and natural disaster zones. For the past few years Vlad has been covering different human rights issues, working on personal projects and collaborating with the United Nations Human Rights (OHCHR), UNICEF, UN Women, Amnesty International, Child Fund, World Vision, Population Services International (PSI) and other NGOs. Vlad have produced several short documentary films and multimedia for UNICEF, UN Women and ChildFund Australia.

Lys Anzia is the founder and current executive editor for WNN – Women News Network. As a human rights journalist she is dedicated to bringing the issues surrounding social justice and global women together through outstanding award winning news stories. In addition to WNN, Anzia’s work can also be seen in other publications that include Vital Voices, UN Women, World Bank publications, UNESCO, Truthout, AWID – Association for Women in Development, and many others. WNN stories are currently listed on over 5 million Google search pages each month.

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©2014 WNN – Women News Network
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