The culture of marriage and family in Papua New Guinea
Many anthropologists, sociologists and human sexuality psychologists have studied the intricacies of Papua New Guinea (PNG) sexuality and sexual mores. Research into this dimension of PNG culture goes as far back (at least formally) as Margaret Mead's investigations. Why is what they find so fascinating?
First, an individual rarely has the freedom to choose their own marriage partner. Virtually all marriages are arranged for reasons that include social standing, familial needs, economics or tribal customs.
After being initiated into the tribe, youngsters spend time with a member of the opposite sex that has been picked to become their lifetime significant other.
According to the tribal norms, the best partners are attractive and industrious. The clan exogamy is paramount. Parent strive to have their daughters marry potentially prosperous boys whose family can afford to pay large "bride-prices."
Families of girls also seek to establish strategic alliances through blood ties that will serve to strengthen their own positions in both commerce and warfare.
If a young woman is forced into a marriage that is unworkable, she has two choices: return home in disgrace or threaten suicide.
If either of those two ploys fail, she can then find a lover to run away with or actually commit suicide.
Because PNG is a polygamous society, many males remain unmarried. Men with assets and physical attractiveness attract many wives.
Divorce is almost always initiated by women. Those that divorce usually remarry if they are young enough.
Traditional marriage patterns slowly transforming
"As Papua New Guineans become more involved in the cash economy and urbanization, marriage patterns are being transformed. Bride-price inflation is one response to economic inequality. The practice of women competing for men rather than men trying to attract women is having an impact on marital politics throughout the nation. Women are in an insecure position, especially urban women who must tolerate domestic abuse and infidelity to hold on to their husbands." 1
A common family unit includes a husband and wife, unmarried children, and sometimes the husband's parents. Extended families that live nearby are the norm and often the extended family meets for community meals, social visits, work projects and special social ceremonies.
If the marriage is one of the approximately 10 percent of the polygamous unions that exist, the husband may have anywhere from 2 to 6 wives or more. No limit exists on the number of wives a man may have.
Although traditionally, family decisions are a joint enterprise between the household's adults, younger wives may defer their opinion to older family members.
"Less common is matrilocality and avunculocality. Neolocality occurs only in towns. Even then, a couple may be joined by their parents and other kin." 2
The importance of kin groups
Patrilineal and matrilineal lineages and clans are most often the make-up of PNG kin groups. Members of clan may not actually live on what is designated ad clan land. Sometimes women divorce and leave the clan group, and migrant workers leave groups to find employment far from their ancestral community.
Kin members are obligated to join in clan affairs such as negotiating and contributing to bride-prices when marriages are arranged, the initiation ceremonies performed on the children and services for the dead.
One of the most important roles for the kin groups as a part of the clan collective is to further their clan's stature in the community while working towards continuity of the clan.
Land is the clan's most important asset. A form of social security for the kin groups, the maintenance and acquisition of land accounts for the lifestyle of nearly 85 percent of the tribal populations.
Familial rules of etiquette
Rules of etiquette differ from nation to nation and sometimes within various regions within one nation. An example of that is the United States. The etiquette for meal time is not the same at a cattle ranch outside Abilene, Texas as compared to a dinner party in Upper Manhattan.
"For the people of PNG, living in a "village society, etiquette centers on reciprocity and being hospitable to guests and unexpected visitors. Feasting exchange partners has an urban equivalent in parties where workmates and wantoks [neighbors] are welcome along with their spouses and children.
"Reciprocity is expected but is not always possible, putting barriers between individuals of different income levels. One custom that everyone can participate in is sharing betel nut (buai). Relations between older and younger and male and female are relaxed.
"On meeting, men and women of different ages clasp hands or clasp one another around the waist. Couples do not openly express affection in public, but friends of the same sex may hold hands while walking. It is not rude to stare or for persons to crowd one another at counters or stand very close. In chiefly societies, commoners must bow before chiefs and are prohibited from eating foods reserved for the chief and his family." 3
1. Papua New Guinea: A History.