The Bride Price Tradition in Papua New Guinea
By Maureen Gerawa
Papua, New Guinea. Incidents of domestic violence are common in Papua New Guinea (PNG), a Pacific Island state of about 7 million people. But some cases are so horrific that they have made headlines in the country’s media.
One such story concerns Joanne (not her real name) from the capital city of Port Moresby whose husband attempted to cut off her leg over a small matter. Although he had beaten her up many times in the past during arguments or when he was angry, this time he went beyond. He defended his actions by claiming that he could treat his wife as he pleased because he had paid a bride price for her.
The custom of paying a bride price—in which the groom or his family gives money, property, or other forms of compensation to his fiancé or wife—is found in various parts of Asia and Africa. In PNG, the tradition is practiced in some parts of this culturally diverse country and can range from payments in the form of livestock and small amounts of cash to large sums of money, sometimes tens of thousands of dollars. Historically, the function of a bride price was to provide compensation to the family of the bride, who would typically move in with her new husband’s family. In more recent times, it has also been described as providing a disincentive for divorce, since the husband would have to pay another bride price when seeking a new wife.
The amount of a bride price is set by the groom and his relatives, and the parents of some women have complained about receiving low prices for their daughters. Certain wealthy individuals, however, view the setting of a bride price as a type of competition with their friends and acquaintances. In Central Province, some reportedly have paid more than K100,000 ($US33, 000) excluding the cost for various food and other items exchanged between the brides’ and grooms’ families. Two women living with wealthy, abusive men say that their husbands have told them that they will make their wives’ families repay their high bride prices if they leave. “I know my parents cannot afford it, and I do not want to put them under pressure,” says one.
According to a November 2015 Human Rights Watch (HRW) report titled Bashed Up: Family Violence in Papua New Guinea, the exact number of women who experience domestic violence is unknown. However, a 1992 PNG government survey—the most recent of its kind—found that it occurs in about two-thirds of all households. The report adds that “bride price sends a message that women are property”—which, many would conclude, increases the likelihood of domestic violence.
PNG has recently taken steps to address this abuse. In 2013, parliament unanimously adopted the Family Protection Act, which criminalizes domestic violence and provides penalties of up to two years in prison; however, implementing regulations are still being drafted. Other signs of progress include a new hotline that has been established to refer victims to appropriate aid services, and a government strategy that is being developed to handle gender-based violence. Yet despite such positive developments, obtaining justice for victims remains difficult, partly because some law enforcement officials do not take the crime seriously, and government-run legal and social services are often limited and underfunded.
According to a report by Chief Inspector David Kola of the police department’s Family Sexual Violence Unit, the greatest challenge that law enforcement officials face in pursuing such cases is that women often withdraw their complaints against their perpetrators. Most victims in PNG, where domestic violence is widely seen as a private and even shameful matter, do not seek help because they fear damaging their family’s reputation. Economic concerns are also a factor: many women depend on their husbands for financial support, and bride prices are customarily repaid if the wife leaves her husband, even if she is abused. In rural areas, the situation is compounded by high rates of illiteracy and limited access to health care, social services, and law enforcement agencies.
Joanne was one of the lucky ones. With the support of her parents, who are helping care for her six children, she told her story to the media which led to her husband being arrested and charged Now separated from her husband, against whom she has a restraining order, Joanne feels safer in the belief that he will not harm her again because he fears facing further humiliation in the media.
Meanwhile, popular attitudes are a factor in downplaying any connection between the bride price tradition and domestic abuse. No less than the country’s prime minister, Peter O’Neil, shares a widely held view that the practice of paying a bride price is not a factor in the country’s high rates of domestic violence.
Many Papua New Guineans support continuing the practice for social and cultural reasons, though some caution against its misuse. A journalist from Tari in the Southern Highlands province, who says that he was glad to pay a bride price for his wife, believes that the tradition makes men more responsible, particularly as the breakdown of marriages becomes increasingly common. “It’s a ceremony; it’s part of our culture. You just cannot get the girl and go. You have to be man enough to do the right thing and pay a bride price.” But he also stresses his opposition to using the practice as an excuse to abuse one’s wife.
A librarian in her late 40s, whose daughter received a bride price, defends the practice by saying that not all men who have paid high prices abuse their wives. In addition, she notes that a man who does not pay a bride price will face criticism from both his wife’s and his own family members. She also cites cultural reasons for maintaining the tradition. “I think we want to keep [the practice], because if a man does not pay a bride price, when [his wife] dies, her body will be taken back to be buried on her parents’ land. After the man pays a bride price, she belongs to him. So when she dies, she will be buried on her husband’s land.”
A woman named Marilyn Paul, who is from the Southern and Western Highlands provinces, says that a bride price is like a marriage contract. While it can be very expensive, without one, “you’re saying that your marriage is not recognized.” Her sister, who has been happily married for the last year, received a bride price because her new husband wanted to show his appreciation and respect for his wife’s family; he paid K 30,000 (US$ 9,9000) and also gave his new wife 35 pigs, 2 cows, and 2 cassowary birds (relatives of ostriches). Although Paul supports continuing the tradition, she adds that it is often abused. “I think the best thing is to understand why one has to pay [a bride price]. [Men] should understand that [paying it] does not give you the right to abuse your wife, but to appreciate her and her family.”