Marriage, Polygyny and Bride Price in Jiwaka Province

Lasted updated: May 2018

While key informants spoke of the decline of tradition or ‘pasin bilong tumbuna’ as it is called in Tok Pisin, they said that marriage customs remain strong (kastam bilong marit i strongpela). However, the marriage customs of today are different from those of the past and there have been a number of significant changes, especially changes to the magnitude and meaning of the exchanges that mark marriage and the expansion of polygyny. Such changes have had important ramifications for women and in some cases women are worse off.


Polygyny, referred to as ‘dubal marit’ (double marriage) in Tok Pisin, was a precolonial practice among the peoples of Jiwaka. Most men aspired to polygyny, according to the anthropologist Marie Reay, who undertook 15 months fieldwork, from November 1953 to March 1955, in what is today Anglimp-South Wahgi. Reay said that nearly every man hoped to have at least two wives but the goal was to have 10 wives, which she says was the largest number that can be indicated by a single gesture using both hands. Polygynists were admired and a man with three or more wives was judged to be important and wealthy.

Despite many men aspiring to achieve polygynous unions in the past, this was really the preserve of leaders with wealth, who sought to increase their renown (‘kisim bik nem’) by the practice. Such men had sufficient land to marry a number of wives and could increase their wealth through the labour of these wives. Such wealth was then used in ritual exchanges to increase their stature in the community. While polygyny today continues to be a practice of men with money, with one respondent commenting that: ‘Man i got planti moni, i got planti meri (a man with plenty of money, has got plenty of wives)’, it appears that some men are little interested in increasing their renown through the wealth accumulated by the work of their wives. Nowadays, since some polygynous men abandon unwanted wives or try to force them out through violence, they must have other motivations for their polygyny.

One dimension of polygyny today is a preference for underage girls, with informants saying that one polygynous man would only marry girls less than 19 years old. A key informant gave the example of a polygynous man, referred to as ‘The Boss’, who was formerly a pastor with the Evangelical Brotherhood Church (EBC), but is now a successful business man with about twenty wives, several of whom are underage, the youngest being 12 years old. ‘The Boss’ justifies his polygyny by recourse to the biblical story of King Solomon. He aspires to have as many wives as Solomon and says ‘I haven’t married this many yet, but I will marry this many (mi no maritim iet, tasol bai mi maritim)’. Because he is rich and powerful, members of the community are too afraid to question his behaviour even though they disagree with it.

In the past, a husband would consult his existing wife or wives about marrying another wife, but today men generally do not do so and sometimes the first wife will only become aware of it when her husband brings a new woman home. This causes resentment, anger and, in some instances, violence. One male respondent said that some first wives agree to their husband having a second wife if they have not been able to bear children, though he said only a few women do this.

The increase in polygyny has resulted in the first wife often being abandoned, or ‘dropped’ as one woman remarked, and the husband not taking any responsibility for the household or the children from the first marriage. All the financial responsibility entailed in looking after children, such as feeding, clothing and meeting their health and education expenses, then falls to the first wife. Not only does this place enormous strain on her, particularly if she has several children, but in some cases the children are unable to attend school because their mother cannot afford the expenses. A significant volume of the case load of Voice for Change is concerned with managing the negative impacts of polygyny on women. According to Lilly Be’Soer, 70 per cent of the women who seek assistance from Voice for Change are there because their husbands do not share resources with their wives or take responsibility for their children. A key informant described the contemporary situation as follows:

There is a trend in the highlands region for men to want to be married to two or three wives — polygyny. The married couple are living happily together and they have children, but the man meets another woman and he starts to think differently. He brings this new woman home and forgets about his first wife and his children. Polygynous marriages give rise to lots of fights.

Sometimes husbands will resort to violence or ill-treatment in an effort to drive the first wife away. This is how one key informant described it:

If a man finds another woman he will sometimes make false allegations against his wife’s fidelity as a pretext for beating her. Such men will say: ‘You go to the market, but where is your money? You are going with another man, you go to the market and you must eat with another man, because you don’t give me any money.’ The real situation is that he has seen another woman or has befriended another woman secretly and he is using his wife’s alleged infidelity as an excuse to beat her. Some smart women will realise what is occurring and accuse him of beating her for no reason. Lots of time when a man beats his wife, she will run away to her natal village and then the new wife will come and live with him.

Nine women reported that there was violence of some kind in the context of polygynous marriages. This included violence by the husband against the wife, violence from the husband and co-wife against another wife, violence from a co-wife or co-wives against another wife and violence from female respondents towards husbands or co-wives. One woman who said she had a good marriage until her husband met another woman reported that he attacked her and broke her nose because he wanted to marry this woman, and they argued over it. Four respondents had been subject to violence from both husbands and co-wives. For example, one respondent reported that her husband favoured his second wife and the two of them beat her, also refusing to share any money with her. Two women were subject to violence from a co-wife or co-wives. One woman said that her husband’s other wives fought with her using a bow and arrow and a spear. One woman who is now divorced stabbed her husband in the waist for buying things for his new wife. At other times when she had been violent towards her husband, his relatives responded by beating her up. Another woman, Jacint, in a polygynous marriage said that her husband took another wife against her objections and subsequently favoured the new wife, giving her money. She responded by attacking the new wife and her husband.

First wives, in particular, object to their husband taking on new wives and may express their anger in physical violence, especially if the husband gives preferential treatment to the new wife, as often occurs. A new wife, too, may resort to violence if the husband continues to have intimate relations with the first wife. Indeed, one woman recounted that when her husband took another wife, the new wife lay in wait one night and stabbed her with a knife. She spent three weeks in hospital with a punctured lung and needed several stitches in her stomach. Following the attack, the second wife ran away to Chimbu and the clan of the first wife sought compensation for the attack from the husband and he was forced to pay K1300 and some pigs in compensation.

Some men engage in conscious strategies to minimise conflict between co-wives. A village court magistrate in Jiwaka Province said that when a man wants to take another wife he will initially have her living some distance from his first wife. Once this wife has come to accept the situation, he will move her much closer. This strategy was common in the past, for as one key informant related, her father told her that if a man decided to take another wife he would never bring her face to face with the first wife and the new wife would initially stay away from the territory of the wife. It would take time for the established wife to get used to the idea of another wife and there needed to be signs that she was willing to accept the other wife. The strategy of having a new wife live some distance from the first wife may diffuse potential violence but it still has negative implications for the first wife. Almost inevitably, the husband directs his emotional attention and his financial resources to the new wife and away from the first wife and her children. This puts further pressure on the first wife to meet household needs and increases her work burden.

Traditionally, domestic discord between co-wives was also mitigated by maintaining equity among the wives. A number of key informants indicated that, ideally, men with polygynous households should have separate houses, pig pens and gardens for each wife in order to avoid provoking the wives and keeping harmony among them. One polygynous man whose father was also polygynous recounted that his father avoided conflict by making sure that he treated them equally. If he purchased store goods, he would make sure that he would purchase seven items all of the same size or volume for his seven wives. Rather than give them the purchased goods individually he would bring the wives together so that they would see that they were each getting exactly the same item. Some men initially embrace the strategy of equity but gradually cease the practice. For example, a man may build a new house for another wife but not necessarily replace it when it starts to deteriorate. Overall, the tendency is not to treat wives equitably and if one wife is treated as a favourite by the husband this is often the cause of anger and resentment.

Some women respond to their husbands taking another wife by going on ‘strike’. One woman, for example, recounted how when her husband took a second wife she ignored him and only slept with him on one night afterwards. If their husband neglects them, other wives may take him to the village court. A village court official gave an account of a woman, whose husband was a business man with a total of six wives, taking her husband to the village court because he didn’t look after her well. The village court gave him a fine of K5000, a substantial amount for Papua New Guinea.

Bride Price

As indicated above, a large proportion (80.6%) of the marriages of the female respondents interviewed during the research entailed the exchange of bride price. In the wake of European contact in Jiwaka, there have been changes in the nature of the exchanges that accompany marriage and today the exchange is simply referred to as ‘braed prais’ (bride price). The kinds of items exchanged, the amount of wealth exchanged and the structure and form of the exchanges have all changed. So, while men may invoke notions of ‘tradition’ or kastam, as a justification for the continued practice of bride price, it is a tradition that has been refashioned.

In the past, the number and type of items exchanged varied depending on the wealth of the bridegroom, but altogether the exchange was quite small compared with today’s standards. For a man of wealth, the objects included some ropes of small cowrie shells, a parcel of native salt and from one to four Bird of Paradise plumes, together with a pig, but a poor man would simply kill a pig and present it to the bride’s relatives.

Marie Reay says that soon after the arrival of Europeans, opportunities for greater displays of wealth arose and this increased the volume and the scope of what was exchanged. A poor man was now expected to give at least four Bird of Paradise plumes, from two to four headdresses (made of less valued feathers), at least four goldlip shells, two bailer shells and several headbands of tambu shell. More generally, Reay says that a marriage payment consisted of 15 to 20 plumes, a dozen or so headdresses (made of less valued feathers), from 10 to 20 or so goldlip shells, about half a dozen bailer shells, from 10 to 20 headbands of tambu shell, one or two skins of furred animals (such as possum, tree kangaroo, wallaby or other small animals), various shell and feather ornaments of less value and a steel hatchet or bush knife or both. Marriage exchanges were always accompanied by the exchange of pig, which was generally a single pig, though a wealthy man arranging his own or his children’s marriages may exchange two or even three pigs.

Almost all of the items that were used in marriage exchanges have now been displaced, with only pigs continuing to be of import in exchanges today. Now the main item of exchange for a marriage is money, which for our respondents could be as high as K20,000, though much higher figures are also known to have been paid elsewhere in Jiwaka. Indeed, marriage is increasingly being used as a competitive arena in which men vie with each other to see who can pay the most for a bride and this is leading to an inflation in the amounts exchanged. As one key informant explained:

There is a competitive spirit amongst families and ‘hauslain’ which means people compete over how much they spend on bride price for women. If a man has a lot of money he will spend more than K10,000 and if a business man more than K100,000. Men compete to see how much they can spend on buying a wife, which isn’t good.

The inflation of bride price is having a number of consequences, including the marginalisation of men who cannot afford to compete, so that marriage becomes the preserve of the wealthy or of men who can draw on the support of others who have wealth. This is leading young men without the necessary resources or support structures to feel alienated from and resentful towards society. The inflation of bride price also has negative consequences for the women themselves, since the exchange entails creating debts that must be repaid at a later stage, with the onus often falling on women themselves (see below).

Generally, a series of exchanges accompany a marriage. In the past, this comprised a first payment to seal the betrothal followed later by the main marriage payment that comprised an exchange of valuables between two clans. This wealth was given for the bride but her relatives were obliged to make a return payment of similar valuables, as well as another woman in exchange for her. Exchanges were supposed to continue throughout the marriage, especially upon the birth of children and the debts accrued were finally settled at death. Marriage exchanges were, thus, not simply a transfer of a bride from her clan to another clan on payment of valuables but a series of reciprocal exchanges that took place over a lifetime. Today, however, this more complex cycle of exchanges is being replaced with a far more simplified version, which simply entails the exchange of money and other items in return for the bride.

Bride Price and Commodification

A further change is that exchanges accompanying marriages are increasingly seen through the lens of commodification as shown by the common way of referring to marriage today, which is ‘baim meri’ (buying a woman/wife). This reinforces the now common belief that a woman becomes the property of the husband upon marriage. Having purchased (baim pinis) a woman, a man believes he owns her, as though she is little more than an object. It appears that under various modern influences, perhaps especially the commodification of exchange, the traditional significance of bride price has been eroded and largely forgotten, a simplified version taking its place. Rather than being seen as an exchange which creates a relationship between two social groupings, and the bride’s kin being compensated for her loss, the bride price exchange is now widely understood quite literally as a simple property transaction, in which a woman becomes the property of a man. Just as a man purchases a commodity from a store, he purchases his wife from her parents.

Bride price is now seen as vesting the husband with control over the wife. At its simplest the expression ‘bossim’ (to control or boss) is used but sometimes a man will say to his wife that she is under his control: ‘you’re under my control (yu stap aninit long kontrol bilong mi)’ or ‘your life is in my hands (laip bilong yu i stap long han bilong mi)’ which literally says that the woman’s very existence depends on her husband’s goodwill.

Sometimes the expression ‘full price, full body (full prais, full bodi)’ is used, meaning that since the full bride price requested by the wife’s group was paid, so the husband has complete control of the wife’s body. Another way of validating a husband’s full control over his wife is to say that because a full payment has been made he is entitled to all of her body (Olgeta bodi bilong em, mi ful payment). Men also say that bride price entitles them to total control over their wives, ‘from their feet to the hair on their head (long lek inap long gras pinis)’. Or a man may say, ‘I control my wife from head-to-toe (mi bossim meri long lek i go long hed)’. When men speak in terms of complete control over their wife’s body, they also mean that they consider that they are entitled to sexual access to their wife regardless of her consent.

Thus, the payment of bride price is used to justify the husband’s authority over his wife, entitling him to her labour, her sexual services and her full obedienc. Put bluntly, the husband’s underlying and general objection is to virtually any exercise of agency on the part of his wife.

Bride Price and Violence

What is at issue is the gendered relations of power; it appears that the commodification of women has intensified the traditional authority that men have held over women — or at the least, has provided a justification for it that is suited to modern conditions. Further, it has the logical consequence of legitimating intimate partner violence, since having authority means exercising authority and, ultimately in the PNG context, using punitive means to enforce it.

A common response by a husband to justify the violence he uses against his wife is the refrain: ‘mi baim em pinis (I have paid for her)’. The bride price is actually paid by the husband’s group — that is, by his sub-clan. Any attempt by a wife to escape a violent or dysfunctional marriage will also be met with a similar refrain, the husband saying that he has expended a lot of money and pigs in purchasing his wife, and so the situation should remain as it is. For example, a human rights defender told how, when she accompanied a female teacher (from a school in Jiwaka) to the police station to lodge a complaint against the teacher’s husband for beating her, when brought into custody the husband said, ‘I paid bride price, a large amount of bride price, so I have the right to beat her (Mi baim braed prais, bikpela braed prais. Mi got rait long paitim em, em i tok)’. This defence is also resorted to by members of a husband’s family.

Under such circumstances violence is considered an entirely appropriate corrective for even the slightest failure of wives to fulfil their perceived marital duties and to observe customary proprieties. As one key informant noted:

It is the custom of us highlanders to buy wives with a large amount of bride price. Ok, when we buy a wife we think that we have paid for the body of the woman from the toe-to-head. Because a man has paid bride price he thinks that the wife is under his control. Men think like this. So when a husband asks his wife to do some work in the garden or something else and she avoids this and does what she likes and goes off to play cards, he will ask her what she has been doing. ‘You have work in the house and wander off doing your own thing.’ They will then start to fight.

Bride Price and Indebtedness

The large escalation in bride price, including the large amounts of cash seen today, is having another adverse effect on women. There is an expectation that a wife will contribute to the repayment of what is in fact her own bride price and she often suffers ill consequences if she does not work hard to do so.

Usually it is not the husband alone who accumulates the amount to be paid in bride price, even though husbands often speak as if they alone provided the wealth that was exchanged. Rather, contributions are made by other members of his immediate and extended family (hauslain) and these are recorded in detail. Such contributions are not freely given, magnanimous gestures. On the contrary, they are given in the full expectation that they will be repaid (bekim bek) later when the contributors have their own obligations to fulfil. In effect, contributions to a bride price payment actually create debts (dinau) between the married couple and all those who have contributed. This is explained in the following way by a key informant:

Lots of men will think that because they have paid bride price for a woman, she must work hard looking after pigs, making money. Because my brothers have helped me with the bride price, my hauslain has helped me with paying for the bride, the two of us must work hard to raise enough money and pigs to reciprocate — to repay the debt. A man who has helped me to buy a wife puts a debt on me. Whoever has helped me by giving money, whoever has helped me by giving me pigs, I write down their name and how much money or pigs. The both of us, me and my wife, will work hard to try to pay off this debt. If I do not reciprocate the things that were contributed to the bride price, if we do not reciprocate those things, people will gossip. … If the both of us do not pay off the debt, people will refer to us as rubbish. People will give us a bad name. That is why we work hard to reciprocate the things people have contributed to the bride price.

This quotation speaks clearly of the debts as being the responsibility of both the husband and the wife to repay. Therefore, if a husband feels that he is working hard to repay the debts but his wife is not, he will vent his anger by beating her. This man went on to say that a further consequence of bride price debts is that the married couple will live extremely frugally in poverty until all the debts have been repaid. Once this is done they can keep any money they earn or pigs that they have raised for themselves. So, the larger the debt, the harder it is to pay off and the longer the time the married couple live in poverty.

However, although the debts are supposed to be borne by the both partners, several key informants said that the responsibility for repaying the bride price debts often falls solely on the wife. So, just as bride price is often cited in justification of marital violence, it has also become a reason for husbands to overburden their wives with work while they themselves refuse to work. Just as men are leaving the responsibility for subsistence agriculture to women, they are leaving income generation to their wives as well. Again, this can lead to violence, since if a husband considers his wife is not working hard enough to repay the bride price debts, he will beat her.

The key informant cited above said that he felt sorry for women, since due to bride price debts they carry a large responsibility. As he remarked:

I’m sorry for the women, they carry a big responsibility. The husbands beat the wives, so that they work hard to look after pigs and accumulate money. Whenever they get a small amount of money from doing business or by selling coffee or chickens or whatever else they will look after the money and hang on to it so that they can repay the debt.

Because the responsibility for the repayment of the debts so often falls upon the wife, some key informants speak of bride price as a form of ‘imprisonment’ for women. The larger the bride price, the greater the debt and the longer it takes to be repaid. As one human rights defender noted:

The bad side of it is that with a large bride price, such as K10,000 and 10 pigs or 20 pigs, a woman will be imprisoned by her bride price. Whatever members of her husband’s group contribute, this is recorded in a list and if someone in the group dies or someone gets married, the married couple will have to contribute to this payment. The bride price is not contributed for free, it has to be paid back. It’s like they have placed a debt on the married couple. When bride price has been exchanged, the woman will work at paying back all the debts, until she is not burdened by anything. Women are imprisoned by this. The rights of women are imprisoned by this.

The imprisonment by debt was clearly enunciated by one female respondent whose bride price had comprised K4000 and 20 pigs and who told us that she carried most of the workload in her marriage, having been told that this was to pay the bride price. She feared that if she protested about the burden of work she would be beaten and so she remained silent.

One village court official did, however, say that some women do take their complaint to the village court, as follows:

There a lot of cases. People come to the village court, the wife will complain and the husband will complain. The husband will say that she is wilful (bikhed) and ‘I paid for her with bride price but she is wilful.’ The woman will say that he does not look after her: ‘He doesn’t help me with the work, he doesn’t help me with looking after the pigs, so I’m responsible for doing all the hard work to pay off the debt.’

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