Mental Health and Violence against Women and Girls: Experiences of a GBV counsellor

Ume Wainetti speaks with Spotlight Initiative about her experiences counselling victims of gender-based violence in PNG.

Tell us about your job and what you do?

I am a Board advisor for the Papua New Guinea Counselling Association. I was the National Program Coordinator for Family Sexual Violence Action committee (FSVAC) from November2002 to April 2017.


Why is mental health important?

I think mental health is important because working with  the FSVAC, I have seen women and children who have experienced so much violence and developed mental illness, some  have chosen paths that have led to further abuse and others have  become abusers  I witness women dropping court cases against spouses because they believe that what happened was their fault or they feel responsible and are dependent on the men to provide basic needs – shelter, education, food, health and the need to maintain social status.

The Bougainville conflict too contributed to violence by soldiers to families that had never been experienced before. FSVAC developed a referral pathway and within that path way FSVAC realized that providing health care, refuge, legal services and repatriation and reintegration alone would not alleviate the issues women and children were faced with. We needed to provide counselling services to help them to discuss their issues and find a solution that is of their choosing.


What do we know about the mental health of people of Papua New Guinea?

Mental Health in PNG is considered to be for those who are severely mentally ill.  Otherwise generally many people who experience trauma during tribal fights, natural disasters, work place trauma, even the Bougainville conflict and Family Sexual Violence (FSV) just to name a few are not considered to need such professional help.


What are the biggest challenges faced by women and girls today?

I believe the biggest challenges women and girls face today when seeking support are: the inadequate support and representation of survivors in the justice process, under resourced and poorly skilled service providers, and lack of information to inform and encourage men and women to respect human rights.


How can mental health services address these challenges?

I know that those professionally trained in mental health services would ensure survivors are not further victimized.


What is the current status of mental health services in the country? (how many qualified mental health professionals are there in the country?)

I believe there are less than 10 qualified mental health doctors in PNG and we do have some mental health nurses, maybe one to each provincial hospital. In the area of counselling there are 38 diploma graduates. There could be around five to six people with a master’s degree in counselling gained overseas.

University of Goroka (UOG) offers diploma in guidance counselling for the teachers based at school. There are about 1000 others who are based in meri seif haus’, family support centers and at community levels whom are referred as community-based helpers and now UN Women has named them human rights defenders. These 1000 people are not trained fully but are considered helpers. They do referrals and provide very basic counselling services.


How do you become a mental health worker?

To become a mental health doctor, you have to go to the University of Papua New Guinea Medical School and to be a mental health nurse you have to study nursing in one of the nursing colleges in PNG, and later specialize as a mental health nurse. 

The Papua New Guinea Counselling Association in its endeavor to have counselling developed and recognized in PNG as a profession, developed Certificate IV - a national qualification in counselling for PNG. This was done with technical assistance from Australia Pacific Training Coalition and funding from Global fund. Department of Higher Education, Research, Science & Technology endorsed Certificate IV in 2019 and in 2020 accredited International Education Agency (IEA) College of TAFE to offer Certificate IV in Counselling training. The certificate IV course is for 12 weeks. IEA College of TAFE has four regional training centers in PNG – located at Port Moresby, Madang, Mt Hagen and Kimbe. Those interested should check with IEA College of TAFE when this course will be offered at their regional centers.

The Papua New Guinea Counselling Association also developed a Community Helper Training Manual in 2019. This was done with assistance from Child Fund PNG Office and Global Fund. The training is to target those who are offering support to survivors at community level.


What are current challenges that mental health services face in this country and what is needed to improve mental health services?

The biggest challenge is that PNG Government has not recognized mental health as a national crisis to address. It explains why government and private training institutions have not developed curriculums to offer trainings in the mental health area and there are no job offers in this area apart from hospitals.


How can people access mental health services?

To see a mental health doctor, clinics have to make referrals for more severe mental health cases.  Otherwise those who experienced trauma through domestic violence can access counselling at refuge in meri seif haus’ or Family Support Centers. We also have the 1-Tok Kaunselin Helpim Lain that provides free phone counselling and referrals. It is unfortunate that in PNG we wait for the problem to happen and then treat it, not help to prevent it from happening.


What would you say to someone who is currently living in a violent home?

There is no easy answer to give to a woman living in a violent home, because we do not have services with easy reach and our traditional safety networks are not working. However, I would encourage them to leave. 


Those who are in a violent or abusive relationship are advised to call FREE 1-Tok Kaunselin Lain for help 7150 8000.


Spotlight Initiative Support

In order to increase the pool of available trained counsellors, the Papua New Guinea Counsellors Association is expanding training to ensure there are more counsellors in the country and they are better equipped to support survivors of violence in the community. The strengthening of the PNG Counsellors Association is an on-going National Family and Sexual Violence Action Committee (FSVAC) Project with assistance from the European Union – United Nations Spotlight Initiative to eliminate violence against women and girls.

UN entities involved in this initiative
UN Women
United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women
United Nations Development Programme
United Nations Population Fund
United Nations Children’s Fund