Restorative justice approaches in Papua New Guinea are breaking the cycle of school absenteeism caused by family violence

In Lae in Papua New Guinea, researchers have examined school responses in the context of wide spread family and sexual violence, low school attendance and problematic behaviour at schools. The findings have been published as a chapter in Restorative Justice for All’s new book Restorative Justice in Educational Settings and Policies: Bridging the East and the West (DSW Wong DSW and T Gavrielides (eds) 2019, RJ4All Publications, UK).

A brief summary of the chapter can be found here: https://irp-cdn.multiscreensite.com/c0b1f356/files/uploaded/Extract_978-1-911634-07-2.pdf

Michelle Nayahamui Rooney, Miranda Forsyth, Dora Kuir-Ayius and Mary Aisi argue that the high levels of family violence in Lae impacts on children and their schooling. They have examined how schools, particularly school counsellors, are assisting children living with family and sexual violence to continue with their schooling. Research found that many of the schools supported students in ways that resonate with restorative justice approaches in other parts of the world. Much of the literature about restorative justice has been generated in the global North. Restorative justice approaches are often thought of as victim-offender mediation or conferences. This paper found that school responses, that were similar to restorative justice approaches, utilise the strengths within the school community and the broader public to foster support for students impacted by violence in their homes or the wider community.

Research was conducted with five schools in Lae who were invited to participate in the research. The research found that when families break down as a result of domestic violence or neglect, there can be severe financial hardship. Children commonly drop out of school entirely or attend intermittently as a result. Government policy states that students who are absent from school for more than 30 working days in a school year are not eligible to sit for national examinations. This default 30-day exclusion policy has the potential to further entrench the disadvantage experienced by students coming from homes in which family or sexual violence occurs.

The researchers found that school managements, individual teachers and the wider community are using multiple and creative ways to respond to the needs of students experiencing problems at school due to family and sexual violence. These creative approaches are providing a safety net for students who remain in school, as well as for students who have already dropped out of school.

This research found that the traditional, informal practices used in Papua New Guinean schools are similar to restorative justice approaches. These are based on a restorative ethos of promoting social engagement, of focussing on the problem rather than on the person and of repairing harm and preventing future harm. They seek to provide circles of support and inclusion for students rather than pushing to exclude and punish them.

The researchers argue that restorative justice, defined broadly, offers an alternative to the existing de facto punitive exclusionary approach, which does not take into account the interlinkages between student absenteeism and family and sexual violence. Approaches informed by restorative values examines students’ relationships with others and have the potential to offer alternative sources of support.