The Kunua District located on the northwest coast of Bougainville is one of the most disadvantaged, underdeveloped and disaster prone districts in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville.
Continuously rising sea levels have forced the local community to relocate time and time again - and with each shift further inland it takes the residents closer to the dangers presented by the volcano towering above the area, Mount Balibi.
Perched on the north-west tip of the Solomon Islands archipelago, Bougainville forms part of Papua New Guinea’s easternmost border region.
During the 1980s civil war erupted in Bougainville when an Australian company began to mine copper at Panguna mine in central Bougainville - opposition to the mine was on many fronts as many locals felt that their land had been taken, exploited and destroyed.
Between the 1st of December 1988 and the 20th April 1998 approximately
15,000 to 20,000 people were killed on Bougainville as a result of this conflict.
However, the true legacy of the conflict is not in the islands scars, but the impact on its people.
Village leader Chief Hilary has been living in the Kunua district on the north-west coast of Bougainville for his entire life- and in this 62 years his village has been relocated 4 times, each time a little further inland.
Faced by the continual threat of natural disasters Hilary and his fellow villagers have found themselves becoming climatic refugees.
Moving incrementally away from the hazards presented by the ocean pushes them closer to the threats associated with the volcano that towers above the village, Mount Balbi.
Two decades after the conclusion of the civil war it’s a place that faces many challenges for the people that inhabit it.
One of the biggest challenges in Bougainville is gender based violence.
The 2013 Bougainville Family, Health and Safety Study reported for the year 2012 that 85% men had perpetrated physical, sexual or frequent emotional or economic violence against a partner, and three-quarters of women experienced this.
Of men surveyed, 14% indicated that they had raped, or sexually assaulted, another man.
I have to be honest, when I went on this trip armed with an Australian journalist and an in-country translator I was expecting to come back with some incredible interview material to pair up with each and every image we had created.
However, what I hadn’t taken into account was just how reluctant these women would be to talking openly about the social issues they face in day to day life behind closed doors.
I’d seen the statistics, I’d read some of the reports, but yet few seemed to want to talk openly about the challenges faced by the women of Bougainville.
There seemed to be a lot of fear surrounding speaking with us about these matters, and if I’m honest, I guess this displayed my personal ignorance of both how common & extreme the gender based violence has become some parts of the globe outside of my little (and rather sheltered) pocket of the world.
Looking back on the experience of the trip and of the people we were fortunate enough to meet I realise that I’m actually more shocked by their fear of speaking up than many of the stories themselves.
The combination of poverty and violence is a dangerous one for teens growing up in Bougainville.
Violence against women is an expression of persistent, deep-rooted gender inequality and discrimination against women.
It’s reported that 33% of women have experienced physical or sexual violence, or both, by an intimate partner in the last 12 months.
“This was once a safe place to be, but the crisis made people become really violent.”
Maverick comes from a village in Arawa where people still carry guns, and fighting is a common occurrence. When his parents couldn’t afford the fees for him to attend nursing college, and told him to drop out, Maverick believed that violence was an easy solution.
“I was frustrated. I wanted to take one of those guns and go home with it to make my parents pay. I wanted to knock my brother down and stab him with a knife.”
A well-placed family friend intervened, encouraging Maverick to be patient and to think of his future. In a gesture of goodwill, she paid for his school fees.
Today Maverick’s in his second year of nursing, where Plan International’s health workers are supporting the next generation of local health professionals. They offer counselling to students – a vital service as they grow up amidst the legacy of conflict - and teach them about sexual reproductive health.
“As a male nurse, I’ll be able to educate men about the issues women face here. It’s essential information,”
“I continue to be a community health volunteer because in my community people were dying. They didn’t know about diseases like TB and leprosy so they blamed it on sorcery because they didn’t know what caused the deaths.
There’s a big issue here of young women getting married and having children as they don’t have any access to health care for themselves or their children unless they go into town. If they are far away from the town most of them just stay home.
Some are ashamed or scared to go to the hospital so they don’t even go to the hospitals.”
Plan International’s health team in Bougainville is working tirelessly to plug this gap, supporting communities – like those living in South Nasioi - by offering outreach health services to the community. For many young women in these villages, it’s the first time that they’ve ever received information on maternal and sexual reproductive and health care.