How much is a good woman worth?
Kundiawa-Gembogl District, Papua New Guinea
It seems a world apart to consider another person a possession to be valued at a bartered price. But attitudes that the western world might have thought were left behind in Georgian times are alive and well in much of the world. Gender equality may for some be a matter of career equality, glass ceilings or even access to children following a messy divorce. For others it is whether one has any self determination. Where does slavery end and independence begin? How much does culture have the right to be respected? To what extent does one's rights exist outside of the local culture?
For Jacob 7 years labour seemed a fair price for Rachel. To him such was his love it seemed just a few days. In PNG it is more a matter of straight cash and goods to the value of. The practice is still hard wired into society, it would be highly unusual and risking social isolation to break the custom. Women are considered a valuable possession, not just of the family but of the whole tribe. Marriage is a tribal matter. The whole tribe contributes towards the bride price hence the price is so high. A bride price is made up of a mixture of cash, "meri" blouses, (traditional women's clothes), bilums (knitted bags), food stuffs and crucially pigs. And of course if one has contributed one feels one has a right to a say. So marriage becomes a rather public affair with the whole tribe joining in negotiations over the price. In PNG thinking, women are a valuable asset to the tribe. It is the women's role to grow food, mainly KauKau (sweet potato) and to raise pigs. If a woman leaves a tribe to join her husband then they lose that economic benefit for good. So the bride price is a form of compensation for loss of earning power. In addition to the earning power of the women all children of the marriage belong to her husband's tribe. The woman leaves her tribe and joins her husband's. She will only normally return if she brings gifts.
As the education levels of women increase this raises tensions. The woman becomes a more valuable commodity as her earning power has increased but at the same time education often leads to greater dissatisfaction. However traditional culture still holds sway, partly supported by the male domination of society and their vested interests to keep the status quo. However it is not only men who promote the current bridal practices. There is a gradual erosion of these behaviours in marriages where both parties have been educated especially up to higher education. There are however restricted opportunities for women to access higher education especially before marriage.
Papua New Guinea is a signatory to UN targets and treaties. However there is frequently a large discrepancy between law, policy and practice. PNG is a signatory to the millennium goals for universal primary education and female empowerment. However there is no law that it is compulsory to send all children to school to the end of primary education. The result is that by the end of primary two thirds are male and one third is female. Only half of students who finish primary education are allowed to go on to secondary school. Rates of female take up at secondary school fall again. Many who do not complete primary school have been removed to be married or undertake childcare and farming.
The sense of ownership of women adds to the level of domestic abuse as men who have paid a high bride price then consider they own the woman and as they own her they have the right to treat her as they wish. It is, as one young man said to me, "the PNG way." Educated professionals in senior public service positions where they have a responsibility to apply gender equal opportunity policies talk freely of owning their wife. Life is not all one sided as the laws are clear, wife beating is illegal. Posters all round the walls of the hospital graphically illustrate this. Our neighbour last week won her court case where the husband had beaten her with a large piece of wood and cracked her skull. The husband is now in jail.
So it is difficult for people to be different and stand up for women's rights. In England I attended a Christian conference before coming out, on a movement called Respect. It was inspired by the experience of women in the DRC, one might term the rape capital of the world. Respect was focusing on being an advocating voice for a woman's right not to live in fear in England. There is a huge need for Churches in Papua New Guinea to be counter cultural. To stand up for monogamous marriage and for men to be courageous and love their wives with tenderness and respect. In this society marriage to more than one woman is common and respected although it would seem the women usually live in a different place to each other. Legal marriage is difficult to define. Many, if not most, weddings constitute a traditional village agreement and celebration.
Alongside this sits a major issue around the influence of beer. Men line up bottles of SP lager 6 at a time throwing them down their throats in rapid succession. Hard drinking is the norm, greatly encouraged by the handout culture at election time. Last week a sitting MP arrived at a small hamlet just outside Kundiawa and gave out 10,000 Kina, by morning every male was paralytically drunk. It reminds me of the time which gave birth to the Salvation Army and the abstinence movement. Alcohol abuse of course permeates most societies and is linked to all sorts of social maladies.
In this place, at this time, it raises the question for me, "How different should a Christian be?" How much should our domestic lives reflect the views we propound? How careful should we be with our speech and humour? It is a brave Pastor who confronts what are the traditional cultural norms when tribal identity is the over-riding instinct. I wonder what tribal instincts we in Britain are prone to that lead us to compromise on principles we hold dear. As Heather and I have been reading the letters to Timothy these last few weeks it has become clear there is nothing new under the sun. These same battles have been constantly waged for thousands of years. For those who suggest that Paul's advice is out of date, out of touch and no longer relevant I can only suggest a short stay in Papua New Guinea to realize life does not consist of comfortable protected environs. For the majority in the world life is a whole lot starker. We may not have given much but we have learnt and received a great deal in our short time here.