Papua New Guinea's Bride Price: Meaningful tradition or a trigger of violence?

Papua New Guinea’s Bride Price: Meaningful tradition or a trigger of violence?

The bride price is a marriage custom that is widely practised in certain provinces in Papua New Guinea. The prospective husband’s family makes a payment to the bride’s family, thereby solidifying their marriage through a symbolic exchange which strengthens clan ties and in so doing, serves as a social contract and an equalising factor for both parties. Traditionally, the bride price payment in some regions did not exceed the equivalent of 500 kina and consisted of a variety of goods which included livestock, kina shells and cash. Today, the bride price has now reached inflated proportions, with some payments consisting solely of large cash amounts reaching as high as K$20,000, or consisting of expensive material goods such as vehicles. Many persons contend that this cash-driven approach to the bride price payment has led to the treatment of women as property and the exacerbation of gender-based violence.

Papua New Guinea is one of the worst places in the world to be a woman. Violence is pervasive and shockingly extreme. Severed hands and legs, smashed heads and faces and chopped ears are everyday occurrences, the normalised expression of Papuan masculinity.

Gender-based violence in Papua New Guinea (PNG), as elsewhere in the world, often reflects the social and cultural mores and traditions of society and serves to reiterate gender roles, which can often perpetuate a dangerous cycle of violence and abuse that is difficult to eliminate. Male dominance and female submission are deeply ingrained in Papuan society and reinforced by the application of violence of a brutal magnitude.

It is widely believed by many critics and observers from a diverse cross-section of persons native to the country, as well as observers from abroad, that the bride price is the singular cause, or at least one of the principle contributing factors in the persistence and worsening trend of violence against women in PNG.

Is the Bride Price to blame for violence?

Interestingly, the bride price tradition dates back to a time when violence between couples was a reportedly frequent, although much less vicious occurrence. Observers suggest that what is different now, is that the emphasis on large cash or material payments have distorted the real purpose and value of the tradition. Instead of serving as a social contract that is meant to strengthen kinship relations between the bride and groom’s clans, it now acts as a status symbol of ownership and has become yet another social and cultural construct which reaffirms male dominance and female suppression.

Some persons argue that the cash-influenced, Western lifestyle which has taken over PNG is to blame for the distortion of the bride price. This, they assert, has caused higher demands for brides as families try to outdo one another as they demonstrate or solidify their status through the tradition. The exchange of large sums of money for brides has produced a sense of entitlement amongst men, which, in turn, seems to have contributed to a increasingly aggresive culture of the treatment of women. A higher price justifies the treatment of wives as silent and submissive property, rather than as equal partners. The higher the price, the more unequal and unprotected women become.

The higher price also seems to make marital separation a more difficult task for the wife, as her family is obligated to repay the full amount for which she was paid by her husband, should she decide to terminate the union. Amnesty International found that most families are unable to or unwilling to return the money. This social contract now acts as an almost iron-clad deterrent for separation, thereby perpetuating the abuse and mistreatment of women who suffer within a dysfunctional marriage.

Piamia said his office had received many reports about violence against women but when they arrested the husbands, they defended themselves by saying they had paid bride price. He said police were often told the fault was with wives and the husbands “decided to teach them a lesson”. He said as a result most husbands walked away free. “It’s time the bride price system is done away with and in any marriage, the parents of the bride and groom must support the new family”. He said paying bride price did not help to strengthen marriage, “instead it causes a lot of problems for the women”. Comments from RPNGC Inspector Piamia on the Bride Price taken from Violence is Not Our Culture

Although violence most certainly did occur within families and marriages in Papua New Guinea decades ago, gender violence was not supported or condoned by the abused woman’s family members. In the past, if a married woman was abused, her male family members would rush to her assistance and help her to leave. Ume Wainetti, the National Convenor of the Papua New Guinea Family And Sexual Violence Committee, observes that the breakdown of the once tight-knit familial bonds leave women largely defenceless and without a security network on which to rely. The disappearance and erosion of other aspects of clan traditions and extended family support is a detriment to the safety of the abused wife and further highlights the danger of the modern demands for the bride price payment.

The Bride Price payment: A case of ‘Keeping Up With the Joneses’?

A conversation about this tradition and its perceived loss of symbolism and contribution to gender violence cannot be complete without underscoring the role of the bride’s family in the process. After all, it is they decide on the nature of the payment. The excessive modern-day demands for some bride price payments emphasise both the parents’ responsibility in this shifting tradition, as well as their implication in the commodification of their own daughters.

Why do some families demand excessive payments? Is this simply showing off? Are they motivated by a desire to display their wealth to the community, or to advertise and boast of their daughter’s success or perceived worth? How do poor people manage this burden? Isn’t there an obvious psychological link between the ownership of expensive ‘goods’ and possessiveness? Should a price cap be placed on the payment or should it be abolished?

Exploring other causes and triggers for violence against women in PNG

Alcohol abuse and polygamous behaviour from men, a marked sense of financial hardship in a changing economy and increasingly vocal and assertive opinions from some women regarding the failure of their spouses to assist in the financial contribution towards child-rearing and household expenses are other triggers of male inflicted abuse cited by Richard Eves in a report on Masculinity and Gender violence for Caritas Australia.

Researchers and activists have also found a strong correlation between orthodox and patriarchal forms of Christianity, which were introduced during PNG’s period of colonisation, and the occurrence of gender-based violence. Some Christian leaders openly espouse the physical castigation of a disobedient wife as the swiftest method of ensuring the male’s position as head of the family and the wife’s subservience. All of these triggers are compounded by a low visibility of and participation by females in the political sphere and in positions of leadership, as well as a generally low level of their incorporation in the formal economy and labour force.

Although the modern-day expression of the bride price payment does indeed seem to be a major instigator of gender violence, this practice is clearly not the singular source of violence in the country. The root of male-inflicted violence in Papua is a complex and multifactorial subject. Male domination and the justification for physical abuse and punishment of the female partner are re-enforced through a myriad of socio-religious, economic and cultural factors. It is the combination of all of the aforementioned elements that encroach on women’s freedom and empowerment, causing their space to diminish, while male dominance expands.