IN Greek mythology, Apollo in his romantic pursuit of Cassandra (daughter of the king of Troy) gifted her with the power of prophecy.
Eventually Cassandra refused him and, when she did, Apollo spat into her mouth to inflict a curse that nobody would ever believe anything she would say.
And so it transpired that, despite their accuracy, Cassandra’s warnings were never heeded and she was called crazy and a liar.
Consider how frequently words like ‘delusional’, ‘angry’, ‘talking nonsense’ or ‘attention-seeking’ are thrown around. It’s a common chide when one has spoken out about a negative personal experience or expressed an opinion about poor customer service at the local shoe shop or an inappropriate brush of the hand by a doctor in the examination room.
Although gender-neutral, history tells us such scenarios are experienced and reported upon predominantly by and girls and women. Yet instead of being met with the rational response of empathy and support, complainants are often berated by those closest (family and friends), the broader community or both.
In Why we should all be attention seekers, Australian feminist writer Clementine Ford reiterates the frustration around perceptions of what type of ‘attention’ women are entitled to seek and what types are expected be tolerated.
Ford reasons that such “attention is controlled by everyone who isn't us and we just have to suck it up and accept what we get”.
‘Everyone who isn’t us’ might point to the general population but moreso to those who have historically been responsible for influencing the enforcing and reinforcing of society’s laws, norms, rules and etiquette.
The story of Cassandra has much relevance in the context of violence against girls and women in Papua New Guinea.
We are inundated with reports of this escalating epidemic. But what of the underlying causal factors deeply-rooted in PNG society that overshadow vocalised female distress following harassment, intimidation, inequality or violence, particularly, sexual violence?
One view to consider is offered by writer Rebecca Solnit, who expressed this view:
“When a woman says something that impugns a man, particularly one at the heart of the status quo, especially if it has to do with sex, the response will question not only the facts of her assertion but her capacity to speak and her right to do so.”
Earlier this year, Radio Australia interviewed Manus member of parliament Ronny Knight. That discussion centred around the 2015 alleged rape of a Papua New Guinean woman by Australian male colleagues at the Manus regional processing centre.
It is a case study of shamefully stunted progress on the part of both Australian and Papua New Guinean authorities.
"I think they should bring them [the accused men] in and let them clear the air and if they are found culpable for it then let them take the heat for it,” said Ronnie Knight. “That should straighten up the relationship."
He then went onto to address case-related documentation (heavily redacted by Australian authorities) adding, “It means that both the Australian government and the PNG government have total disrespect for the leaders of Manus Province and Manus district and our citizens take a second place in the grand scheme of things.”
I find this response distressing. A Papua New Guinean woman made an allegation that her human rights have been violated and yet, priority is given to language that gives precedence to rectifying bilateral relations and admonishing bureaucratic etiquette.
Perhaps Mr Knight has been more articulate on other occasions but, viewing this text in isolation infers a lack of understanding, empathy and genuine support for the female complainant’s right to swift access to justice.
There have been unforgivable delays in delivering justice in this case as well as an appalling lack of proficiency in adopting victim-focused language.
If an allegation of raping a Papua New Guinean woman is not serious enough for a crime to be afforded the language of advocacy she deserves, then what is?
Camilla Burkot’s synopsis of a recent Amnesty International study (Outlawed and abused: human rights abuses against sex workers in PNG) highlighted just how the PNG legal system contributes to perpetuating modern day Cassandras.
Sex work, technically illegal but operating through provisions in certain legislation, implicates Papua New Guinean female sex workers as engaging in criminal activity.
That the male client is afforded immunity for legal culpability is blatant gender inequality. The legal consequence of the sexual interaction is a gross enforcement of misogyny.
This was illustrated in Burkot’s reference to the Child Welfare Act provision which declares that “maintenance payments need not be paid for the illegitimate of a woman to be found be a common prostitute”. But what of the instcaseance where a sex worker is raped by her client?
As if the violation, public stigma and reported inconsistencies of law enforcement aren’t mammoth enough barriers, Papua New Guinean women are further incapacitated by denial of the legal right to seek financial responsibility for the child from the perpetrator.
Like elsewhere, PNG is inundated with cases where the Cassandra syndrome plays out. In my 2015 essay, Loyalty is saying what we mean and doing as we say’, I highlighted instances where Papua New Guinean girls and women were continually subjected to perception being manipulated to accommodate expectations.
We see or hear of the violation taking place, but almost always we ask questions like is this woman deserving of my attention? how much validity should we give her screams for help? did it really happen the way she said it did? what did she do to prompt this reaction? what other factors need to be considered first?
So what will it take for Papua New Guineans, particularly our men and boys, to understand that, in instances where we believe our legal and human rights have been violated, we are not ‘lying’, ‘attention-seeking’ or ‘deserving’ of such infringements?
Gender equality is impossible to achieve if the language, legislation, attitudes and behaviours expressed by those who act or speak on behalf of Papua New Guinean women continue to reinforce doubt about facts of our assertions and thereby incapacitate our right to speak out.