I went to a police station and spoke to the 'big boss.' He allowed me, not only to go inside a prison cell, but also to photograph anywhere within the police station. He also let me go on city patrol with the mobile squat team.
The prison was a small building of about 10 cells, with 10-15 people inside each of those. Every 15 minutes mobile squat patrols brought criminals to the police station.
A couple of times I was locked by a guard in a corridor between cells. We entered together, but he received a call and had to go back to the main building. I hadn't finished photographing yet. When he left, the convicts started to tell me their stories. One of the prisoners recounted in full detail how he had mutilated his wife with an axe.
I listened and waited with impatience for the guard to release me from that hell. Soon he came and brought a man, aged 50. "Take a picture of him too," said the policeman to me. "He was just caught on the street for raping a 5-year-old boy." I barely restrained myself from hitting him…
Out of all the prisoners and gang members I met, not one of them had regret for what he had done. They laughed through the iron-barred doors and begged me to photograph them. With smiles on their faces, they talked about how they had bitten their wives, or about the women they had raped.
I was most shocked by the story of Peter Moses, the leader of the 'Dirty Dons 585' Raskol gang. He told me how he had raped his last victim about a year ago. Peter had gotten drunk on Friday evening in a nightclub and forced one woman to go with him out of the building. On the street he grabbed her by the hair and dragged her into a taxi, telling the driver to take him to the 9 Mile Settlement.
The driver brought them there without objecting. There, on the street, Peter raped the woman. Later he called his friends from the settlement, also members of the gang, and they came to pick up the slack. When I asked Peter how many people had raped the victim, he said: "Not many ... thirteen or fourteen men."
Soon someone informed Peter's wife of what her husband was doing. She ran out of the house and found Peter in the act. A few hours later she left him and moved into her parents’ house, leaving the children to live with Peter.
"Now you understand how Papua New Guinea's women are?" said Peter Moses ending his story. "For a small fault, my wife left me with the children and now my father is forced to look after them…" Genuine surprise stole of the face of the gang leader, but not repentance for what he had done. By Peter's words, he has raped more than 30 women, 3 of them were murdered.
I got official permission from the chief of Port Moresby General Hospital, and with that had access not only to the hospital itself, but also to the family support centre and antenatal clinic. I want to thank Dr. Maria Lavrentieva (Russian Honorary consul in PNG) , who helped me to obtain this permission.
I never approached any women alone. There were always social workers, doctors, police officers or psychologists around. When they explained my reason for working on the project , the women had no objections to speaking with me. They were happy to share their sorrow, and wanted me to give them a voice through my photographs.
There are organisations that work to help assaulted women…. the UN, MSF, Red Cross, 'WeCare' (The Foundation of Women and Children at Risk), City Mission… but the problem is widespread and there aren't enough human resources to provide help for all the victims.
For example, the City Mission in Port Moresby has a refugee centre, where women can be protected for up to 3 months. Unfortunately, they shelter only 30 women at a time. For a city with a population of more than 300,000 people, it's next to nothing.
For many PNG men it is very commonplace to strike their wives. For the young boys from the settlements, raping a woman is a way to be accepted as gang members.
Unfortunately, some women also accept this, continuing to live oppressed by their male partners. They prefer tolerating the violence to being expelled onto the street with their kids, or going back into the parents’ house. In most cases, abused women don't take their male partners to court, being scared by the negative reaction of their relatives or neighbours. Sometimes parents even send their daughters back to the violent husband, if he pays them a fee to cover all the 'damages.'
THE ULTIMATE GOAL.
My aim is to rise awareness, not only in PNG, but worldwide. When I started coming to the hospitals, refugee centres and police stations every day, I witnessed how women were treated. When they agreed to be photographed, all beaten, with tears in their eyes, staring into the lens of my camera, I felt that I must tell the world about their suffering. Then I promised myself to return to PNG, and continue to work on the project.
My dream is to make a big photo-exhibition in one of the main streets of Port Moresby. People would go there and see the faces of their abused relatives, wives, sisters and mothers. Perhaps such an event would cause men to think about changing their attitudes to their 'meri's (Papua New Guinean Pidgin for 'woman'), then it would be a major success. Not mine, but of all Papua New Guinean women.
As told to Francesca Bassenger by Vlad Sokhin, photography © Vlad Sokhin.
To see more of Sokhin's work, or to find out more about the issue, visit www.vladsokhin.com