When Jocelyn Teke, a Huli woman from Papua New Guinea (PNG), wanted to get divorced because of her husband’s infidelity, she had to refund the bride price paid by her husband when they married—thirty pigs and 300 Kina (about $100 US). Not an easy task. Despite having a good job as Ambua Lodge manager in the Southern Highlands, it took the help of Jocelyn’s extended family plus sympathetic coworkers to amass such a bundle.
Today, with her children grown, Jocelyn lives on her own, makes her own plans, wears the clothes, makeup and jewelry she likes, and answers to no one. This post-divorce life, she insists, beats being married and obligated to obey one’s husband and his kin, all the while managing the exhausting household needs of a subsistence farming family.
Jocelyn’s ability to leave her husband and live independently was closely tied to her employment situation—she can afford to support herself and was able to put together the price of divorce. Most women aren’t so fortunate. Only about five percent of women in the workforce hold regular wage-earning jobs. The rest are self-employed in the agricultural sector or manage small-scale businesses such as selling smoked fish. Statistics on marital status are hard to find because “customary” (traditional) marriages and divorces are not reported to authorities.
When Jocelyn told our group of travelers about her divorce, it wasn’t just an aside. Her story punctuated a day-long workshop on women’s roles in Huli society. Most striking was the presentation of women’s attire during pivotal stages of life (above): the traditional ghostly garb of widows; the modern, Christian-influenced black mourning dress; the weapons (knife, umbrella) carried by an avenging wife whose husband was killed in battle; and the humble dress of the attendant, helper of widows and warriors. A different woman in a traditional grass skirt demonstrated the planting of sweet potatoes while minding a baby pig, and yet another displayed the fine arts of carrying a child on one’s back while balancing a head-load of bamboo.
It is often said within Jocelyn’s tribe: “Huli live on land, women and pigs.” The same could be said for most of Papua New Guinea, where more than eighty percent of the population live in rural areas and practice subsistence farming. Instead of opening a bank account, people invest their money in pigs, which are highly prized and ritually consumed during important celebrations. A woman skilled in gardening and pig-raising is a valuable asset, so men look for these qualities in a potential mate.
A successful man may take on additional wives, most notably if the first wife does not bear children. But he may face powerful preventive magic from his wife and her family and friends. A woman who suspects her husband may be thinking of taking another wife will secretly approach a wise woman to prepare a powerful charm to be hidden in the rafters of their home. When the man crosses the threshold, the fetish dissipates his desire for the other woman. In Jocelyn’s case, she had no reason to suspect her husband was secretly courting another woman. The revelation of the lover’s pregnancy exposed the affair and precipitated the divorce.
While gender equality is officially promoted at a national level, women’s rights in PNG, as in many developing countries, have a long way to go to achieve parity with men’s rights. Two-thirds of women in PNG suffer domestic abuse. Only about half of the girls in the country attend school beyond the primary grades. Women are conspicuously absent from leadership roles at local and national levels.
The women’s cause recently got a boost in the sports arena, timed in conjunction with the November 2016 FIFA Under-20 Women’s World Cup held in Port Moresby. A Memorandum of Cooperation Concerning Gender Equality within Sports was signed by PNG, Australia and the United States, which targeted, among other things, the establishment of safe places for girls and women to play and practice sports.
But sports are far from the concerns of the vast majority of PNG girls and women, who spend their days laboriously completing domestic tasks. Until more opportunities for formal employment open up for women, freedom to choose one’s lifestyle, including living as a single person, will remain beyond the reach of most of them.