By Elizabeth Vuvu
In a nation where sexual violence is endemic, women are still targeted and attacked for witchcraft, and female representation in parliament is non-existent, police chief Julie Palakai is blazing a trail for change.
The 43-year-old inspector, a domestic abuse survivor and 18-year veteran of the force, is one of the most senior female police officers in Papua New Guinea—and is calling on the nation's women to take a stand against sexism with her.
"Women must strive and rise up against any discrimination, abuse and sexual harassment in the workplace," she tells AFP.
"For young girls who are still struggling: Do not give up but strive for the best to achieve your goals and to find a better and happy life. Nothing is impossible," she insists.
Human Rights Watch named Papua New Guinea "one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a woman" in a report which estimated 70 percent of women would be raped or assaulted in their lifetime.
The NGO added that sorcery-related violence remains an issue, adding that women and girls are the "primary targets", though men too have been attacked in witch-hunts.
None of the country's 111 parliamentarians are women and there are few women in the police force.
Palakai is the only female commissioned officer—an umbrella term for senior management from inspector grade upwards—in all of Papua New Guinea's northeastern Islands Region.
She has worked hard to get to her position battling institutional discrimination, abuse, and rigid cultural expectations.
Palakai now heads the Public Safety Unit at Kokopo Police Station: It's a role that's highly visible—she leads the prestigious Guard of Honour parade.
Dressed in crisp police blues and wielding a large silver sword, she proudly marches judges, superior officers and other dignitaries —almost always male—up and down Guard of Honour lines.
It's a rare sight in the male-dominated nation, and a role that requires total respect from subordinates.
"When inviting and escorting an important officer or VIP on parade, we are actually inspecting each individual on parade," she says.
Palakai came from a broken family and while she finished secondary school, any plans for further education were disrupted when her home town of Rabaul, was devastated by twin volcanic eruptions in 1994.
Instead, she took a job as a sales rep for a stationary firm in the area but soon became restless. By chance, she saw an advert from the police in the local paper and decided to respond to their search for new recruits.
She was shocked to be selected, Palakai conceded, but happily took the six-month training course near capital Port Moresby before being posted to Lihir, an island best known for gold-mining.
"I was just a young policewoman officer posted out there to lead, manage and command officers older than me, very experienced and long-serving policemen and women," she said of the role as station commander.
"You have to learn to think fast during states of emergency or in everyday situations whilst on normal police duties, and make prompt and wise decisions," she added.
Palakai was ambitious, but like many women in Papua New Guinea, she found her partner was not receptive to her career aspirations.
"I had to leave him as I could not see any better future with him given...the disrespectful behaviour that I could not stand any longer," she told AFP.
"He often argued telling me that I was just a woman and policemen and women will not listen to my instructions and orders and that women had no power to lead," she recalled.
In May 2013 she became a commissioned officer, graduating along with four other female officers placed around the country, and 20 male colleagues at a ceremony overseen by Prime Minister Peter O'Neill.
Since then she has championed the push to encourage women to actively invest in their future.
She explains: "Education does not stop when you are young or old. Where there is opportunity, go for it, as education is your future."