Dial for help: The surprise hotline helping quake survivors in Papua New Guinea


A 7.5-magnitude earthquake struck Papua New Guinea’s highlands region on 26 February. The remote area has also been hit by at least 194 aftershocks between 26 February and 9 April.

More than two months after Papua New Guinea’s strongest earthquake in almost a century, stranded survivors are turning to an unexpected lifeline: a small domestic violence hotline run by a non-governmental organisation.

Although the risks of violence against women rise after disasters, most callers aren’t women. They’re men reaching out for support, enquiring about how to obtain food, shelter, and other services, or fearful of violence that has broken out in some areas after tribal clashes.

The toll-free line has been ringing almost non-stop with calls from people whose lives are still upended by the 7.5-magnitude earthquake that struck the country’s remote highlands region on 26 February.

The quake triggered landslides that toppled villages, wiped out food supplies, and blocked key access roads. Authorities say the disaster killed dozens and left an estimated 270,000 in need of help. But tens of thousands of displaced people in isolated areas are still waiting for food, water, shelter, and other emergency aid.

“In a way, it was one of the only available help sources for people,” said Sally Beadle, programme team leader on gender and child protection with ChildFund, which runs the hotline in cooperation with the Port Moresby-based Family and Sexual Violence Action Committee. “We see that many, many people who access the hotline probably have no access to any other face-to-face service.”

She added that people are desperate, “and what we hear is that people are hungry”.

The nine local trauma counsellors at the 1-Tok Kaunselin Helpim Lain have fielded roughly 2,000 calls since the earthquake, according to ChildFund. In addition to hearing about shortages of food and other basic needs, the Port Moresby-based counsellors talk with people who are afraid of aftershocks or simply anxious about what’s happening in their communities.

“Everything was destroyed: their house, their gardens,” said Audrey, a trauma counsellor who uses a pseudonym in her work to protect her identity. “They have no means to get food, and also the water is polluted.”

She and other hotline workers forward information from the calls to disaster responders working with the government and NGOs. Most callers don’t know where else to turn. “They’re traumatised,” Audrey said. “They’re in fear that it’s going to happen again.”

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