Traditionally, women were expected to produce children (preferably male children), cultivate the gardens, raise pigs, and tend the old and the sick. Marriage customs varied among groups but most had some common characteristics. Marriage was a contract which established reciprocal responsibilities between two clans. These contracts were often made when the couple were children. The payment of bride price cemented the relationship and gave the husband’s clan rights over the woman’s labor. These rights included the right to beat her for perceived poor performance or misbehavior. At marriage women were sent to live in the village of their husbands. Most societies were patriarchal. Where societies were matrilineal women had greater rights. Most societies were polygamous and one way for a man to acquire status was to accumulate wives.
From the mid-19th century the Christian churches advocated monogamous marriages, based on affection and respect between consenting adults. However, a nationwide survey conducted in 1982-84 found that only 35 percent of the women and 29 percent of the men surveyed reported church marriages, and two-thirds of the women in rural areas admitted to having been beaten by their husbands. Women are more likely than men to suffer from malnutrition and infectious diseases. The PNG National Health Plan 1986-90 listed family planning services and maternal care as priorities. However, there is no evidence of improvements in these areas. Maternal mortality rates are among the highest in the world. Women are less well educated than men. Girls have less access than boys to education and more women than men are illiterate.
In theory women are allowed equality of opportunity in contemporary PNG society. In 1973 Chief Minister Michael Somare produced an Eight Point Plan which included “a rapid increase in the equal and active participation of women in all forms of economic and social activity” and women’s rights are enshrined in the national Constitution. In practice, women are discriminated against in both modern and subsistence societies. It is difficult for women to be accepted in professional and managerial roles in either the public or private sector. Only three women have been elected to the national parliament and only one has been a minister. None of the women who contested the 1993 election was successful. Where women work in the cash economy they are usually expected to continue to take responsibility for the household.
In 1992 Prime Minister Wingti publicly recognized the low status of women and discrimination against them in access to education, employment, health care and the law. However, through the example of those women who have broken into the modern sector, and the activities of bodies such as the National Council of Women, attitudes, at least among the educated elite, are gradually changing. There is a Women’s Division of the Department of Home Affairs and Youth, Provincial Women’s Offices and a Women’s Desk in the Department of Finance and Planning. The Women’s Division expects to receive K815,400 from aid donors in 1993. In October 1992 the government launched a National Women’s Policy which includes vocational training and literacy programs, family planning programs and a credit scheme. The programs are to be funded by a K401,100 budget allocation in 1993.