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Hackney mental health worker tells of her journey to Papua New Guinea to help abused women find justice

PUBLISHED: 12:24 30 May 2016 | UPDATED: 12:30 30 May 2016

Alyce, a survivor of gender-based violence, with VSO volunteer Catherine Bedford at Modilon hospital (Picture: Ginny Lattul)

Alyce, a survivor of gender-based violence, with VSO volunteer Catherine Bedford at Modilon hospital (Picture: Ginny Lattul)

©Ginny Lattul

Catherine Bedford tells Emma Bartholomew about her trip from Hackney to to Papua New Guinea - somewhere she believes is the "hardest place to be a woman" in the world

Catherine works as a family and sexual violence mental health nurse at Modilon Hospital in Madang, Papua New Guinea, where she is helping establish a family support centre (Picture: Ginny Lattul)Catherine works as a family and sexual violence mental health nurse at Modilon Hospital in Madang, Papua New Guinea, where she is helping establish a family support centre (Picture: Ginny Lattul)

When Catherine Bedford arrived in Madang, on the northern coast of the tropical paradise that is Papua New Guinea, she was not quite sure what she had let herself in for.

The country is more famous for violence than for the natural beauty of its mountains and coastlines, or for its welcoming people.

Catherine moved from Hackney in October 2013, leaving her job at Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services, to begin her first voluntary placement as a psychiatric nurse for Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO).

Here, she helped set up a family support centre, providing medical and psycho-social services for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence.

The country has one of the highest rates of violence against women in the world, with about 68 per cent of women thought to be survivors in Madang Province, peaking at 90 per cent in parts of its Highlands – meaning her work is essential.

"I overheard one man describe his wife ‘like a bottle of oil I buy from the shop. I can use the oil and return it’."

Catherine Bedford

Services are rare for survivors so when they become victims of abuse, assault or rape they often have nowhere to go, and they may find it impossible to access health or justice services – because they are not allowed by their husbands, it is too expensive to travel, or it’s not safe to leave their home.

Catherine said: “As a psychiatric nurse, systemic practitioner and clinical manager of a specialist family intervention team in London I’ve become very experienced in working with high levels of violence within families but this was a whole new challenge.

“I’ve overheard one man describe his wife ‘like a bottle of oil I buy from the shop. I can use the oil, return it to the shop, give it to someone else or discard it.’ With such little respect paid to women it’s not unexpected that violence is normalised.”

She continued: “Men are seen as heads of households whose ‘duty’ it is to discipline their wives if they do something ‘wrong’, like poor housekeeping.”

Catherine’s work involves dealing with trauma from tribal fighting, or domestic and sexual violence – but accusations of witchcraft are also commonplace.

The outpatient entrance at Modilon hospital in Madang, Papua New Guinea, where Catherine is based (Picture: Ginny Lattul)The outpatient entrance at Modilon hospital in Madang, Papua New Guinea, where Catherine is based (Picture: Ginny Lattul)

Catherine said: “Often after there has been a death or deaths in the village then someone will be accused of killing them through sorcery.

“It is common for people to attempt to kill those accused, often following torture trying to get them to admit to it. If they’re not killed, often they can’t return to their home because the community may want to harm them again.”

Catherine’s job lasts another six months, but she hopes she may be able to get an extension of her two-year placement, which is funded through the Department for International Development’s £184million budget to combat violence against women and girls abroad.

She said: “A lack of resources in the UK can mean not enough time with families or a lack of funding to build a new programme. Here, it means dressing a wound in the dark with only the torchlight from a mobile phone, or keeping it clean with no reliable flow of water.

“It can be exhausting, but when I’m with these women I am both angered and inspired. I want to find a way for them to feel deserving, empowered and respected again. I want to help them find justice.”

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