Two women from Papua New Guinea flew half-way around the world this week to tell their stories of sexual assault at a Canadian mining giant’s shareholders’ meeting — but when they arrived at the meeting, they say they were told they couldn’t speak.
Everlyn Gaupe and Joycelyn Mandi allege they were raped years ago by security guards employed by the Porgera Joint Venture mine, which is co-owned by Barrick Gold and Chinese company Zijin Mining Group. The company has compensated about 130 women, including Gaupe, although she says her payment was not enough. Mandi also sought compensation, but didn’t receive any. The women claim that rapes, beatings, and environmental contamination are still happening at the mine’s dumping site today.
Mining Watch Canada paid their airfare and arranged for Barrick shareholders to appoint the women as their proxies so they could ask questions at the end to the meeting. But as they entered the AGM, the women said they were told their proxy shares weren’t valid. Instead, a Mining Watch Canada activist read prepared statements for them.
“They said no, they told us we were not going to speak, we don’t know why,” Mandi told VICE News inside the meeting. “We followed every rule to come in to speak. We don’t know. Something’s going wrong.”
Jacob Sternberg confirmed to VICE News that he appointed Mandi as his proxy holder so she could speak in his place at the meeting. Rachel Small confirmed that she appointed Gaupe as her proxy. That the women were given the impression they couldn’t speak was “disrespectful, to put it mildly,” she said. The company said while the women were told their proxies were invalid, no one told them they couldn’t speak. Barrick knew a week in advance that the women were coming.
Although they didn’t get to read their statements, the women said they felt proud and happy that their voices were heard inside the meeting. “I am feeling lighter now,” Gaupe said after the meeting. “Barrick and the world have heard us and we are satisfied.”
The women’s visit to Canada comes amid new reports of violence near the mine, and renews questions about the accountability of Canadian mining companies operating overseas — something the Liberal government is facing pressure to address.
“When they run and catch us, they do whatever they want.”
Trade minister François-Philippe Champagne is “a little pre-occupied with Trump these days” so the mining file isn’t getting much attention, Liberal MP John McKay told VICE News. However the government is actively considering creating a mining ombudsman’s office that would investigate serious complaints overseas, he said. “I have a sense that they do want to get this done. I have a sense they don’t want to be answering these questions come next election.”
Champagne’s office said the minister, who was appointed to his position in January, is engaged in the file. He met with Canada’s existing Corporate Social Responsibility Counselor to evaluate how to strengthen the counselor’s role, and has also met directly with the mining sector at the annual Prospector’s and Developers Association of Canada conference in Toronto in March, according to his press secretary.
On March 25, local police funded by the mine entered a settlement in Porgera, Papua New Guinea and burned down a number of houses. During the raid, police allegedly gang raped women and assaulted men, according to a local human rights group the Akali Tange Association. The company disputes that any sexual assault or beatings happened during the raid.
Days before the shareholders meeting, the ATA’s executive officer McDiyan Robert Yapari said he was arrested and charged with reporting false news about the March 25 raid. He said his phone was confiscated and he was accused of tarnishing the reputation of the police.
The company confirmed the raid took place, but said only 18 structures were burned down — not 150 houses as McDiyan had reported — and the whole operation was conducted legally with warrants. However the company did not provide those warrants when VICE News asked to see them.
In interviews with VICE News, Gaupe and Mandi explained that the mine has drawn a large population into the valley around it in search of wealth, and so the valley is crowded with people living in slum-like conditions, making it difficult if not impossible for them to farm and produce food as they used to. Instead, they say the only way to survive is to go to the mine dump site every day to pan for gold, which they can exchange for money to buy rice.
But Barrick security considers this illegal mining and trespassing, so they chase the miners off the site, threatening them with guard dogs and shooting them with rubber bullets, according to the women.
“When they run and catch us, they do whatever they want,” Gaupe told VICE News. “They beat us brutally. …They arrest us too, and for the women we are likely to be raped.”
“We’ve seen surveys where 80 percent of the women in the community have said they have been sexually assaulted.”
“It’s happening now, while I’m talking. They like raping us, the security guards,” she continued. “Two weeks ago, we heard three women were seized up by security personnels and they were raped.”
Company spokesperson Andy Lloyd told VICE News the company was aware of another rape report in the last two weeks, but that no claims had been submitted to the company.
“We absolutely condemn sexual assault, it’s a horrific crime and we don’t support it,” Lloyd said following the meeting. “It’s unacceptable and it’s not something we want to see happening on any mine or around any mine that we operate.”
“There is no question that sexual assault is a huge problem in this part of the world,” he added. “We’ve seen surveys where 80 percent of the women in the community have said they have been sexually assaulted by a family member, by members of the community, so it’s a pervasive problem, it’s not a mine problem.”
Mandi said she had submitted a claim to the company’s grievance process in 2014, but had not heard anything from the company since then.
Lloyd explained that the grievance mechanism takes a long time, and is not set up to address serious human rights violations like sexual assault. If someone does submit a sexual assault claim through the grievance process, it gets put aside into a legal claims process, he said. If it’s found to be valid, the mine “would discuss a remedy.” He was unable to say whether any sexual assault allegations had been resolved through this process.
He said there were a large number of claims submitted together in one batch, and there were “issues with documentation” of some of those claims. “I have no idea if her claim was one of those, but that may be a reason for why it has taken some time to actually pursue.” In 2015 alone, the company says it received 805 complaints through its grievance mechanism, although the company would not say how many of those were complaints of sexual assault versus resettlement requests, employment grievances and other claims.
“Empty promises, it didn’t happen.”
In some cases, local human rights groups will bring grievances forward on behalf of people who say they were wronged by the mine, and Lloyd said the company must do its due diligence to ensure those groups are authorized to represent the complainant.
“The commitment from [President Kelvin Dushinsky] today was to follow up with her and to understand what her claim was, and whether there is anything we can do to help move it along, I think that’s something we’re happy to do,” he said of Mandi’s claim.
The company has no plans at the moment to re-open its remedy framework that previously compensated women for alleged sexual assaults.
Other than the grievance process, women can report sexual assault allegations to a human rights observer in the valley, or to the police, Lloyd explained, although police themselves have been accused of raping women.
Lloyd said the company “has tried to be a positive force” in the dialogue around sexual assault, training police and employees on human rights, funding a police sexual violence response unit and has brought the anti-gender violence NGO White Ribbon to several of its mine sites to raise awareness about the issue.
Gaupe said the company had promised to pay school fees for her children and medical fees, and set up business for women living in the valley. “Empty promises, it didn’t happen,” she said.