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Discuss the Traditional Place of Women in Papua New Guinea Society and the Changes Taking Place in Contemporary Papua New Guinea.

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Discuss the Traditional Place of Women in Papua New Guinea Society and the Changes Taking Place in Contemporary Papua New Guinea.

Discuss the traditional place of women in Papua New Guinea society and the changes taking place in contemporary Papua New Guinea.

From the earliest time of their life Papua New Guinean women (specifically those of the Papua New Guinean Highlands) are subject to suppression, exploitation and malapropism at the hands of the dominant males. From the position as a sexual object to their role as the primary animal farmer, women are little more than a subservient to male desire (Brown 1988). Traditionally their life as a vassal begins from the moment that they are born, being perceived as dirty. This is reinforced when a girl reaches puberty which is sometimes after their arranged marriage (Herdt 1994). Throughout their lives they are subjugated into manual labour through the day, and at night a sexual slave to their husband. This treatment has only recently begun to change through the continuing influence that Western societal values are having on these once remote Papua New Guinean communities.

In Papua New Guinea there is no “one common people”, as they are traditionally tribal; the fact that over eight hundred different languages are spoken in Papua New Guinea (Ethnologue 2005) illustrates this. It is due to this that it is impossible to speak in general terms about “women in Papua New Guinea”, as it would misrepresent a significant proportion of the Papua New Guinean populus. Owing to this, this essay will primarily discusses groups within the New Guinea Highlands as they are the most studied, most enlightening and arguably the most interesting assemblage within the countries vast array of societies.

The Papua New Guinean Highlands are a male dominated society, thus in order to properly discuss the traditional place of women, it is necessary to assess the position of men, and their influence on women. Hence while this essay will primarily deal with the woman’s role, at times it will discuss the role of males in relation to that of women.

In certain tribes of the Papua New Guinean Highlands (such as the Nama cult and the Simbu society) males are put through an initiation in order to successfully make the transition from what the people perceive as to being an asexual boy to becoming a strong, fighting man (Read 1952, Brown 1988). This process spanning from age five into the early twenties espouses sexual discrimination and the importance of male dominance over females. The whole process is aimed to “remove” any female “contamination” left in a child from his birth from his mother. The notion of female menstruation is seen as “dirty”, and as this blood is seen as originating from women, the process of male initiation is done under the guise of a cleansing from this contamination, whilst at the same time educating the males on the fundamental principles of their society’s values and morals (Herdt 1994).

At age 5, male children are taken from their mothers and from contact with females for a period of time. It is at this age that female children are first directly exposed to their community’s accepted design of the role of women. The girls are segregated from the members of the opposite sex, told that they are not allowed to participate, or even know what their male counterparts are practicing. Through the commencement of the initiation, the male youth are immediately taught to treat females with distain; Read observes: “The typical features of the relationship can be seen in children of five years of age…in the little girls who run screaming through the kunai, their long hair dresses clutched in the hand of some boy while his friends menace them with toy bows and arrows” (1952, pg. 223).

From ages ten to fifteen the initiation rituals become violent and painful for the boys involved. Continual beatings and forced sexual tasks are again attributed to the need to cleanse the body of female impurities (Read 1952, Herdt 1994). Because women are seen as the cause of the pain the boys suffer, again a further antipathy is encouraged towards women. It is at the same age that a woman is selected to be married to a male. She has no say in the arrangement as it is the older males who make the selection. According to Read the practice of young men of the Nama tribe is to “shoot an arrow into the thighs of their future wives” (1952, pg. 225). It is then typical for the male to take his bride and have sex with her regardless of her wishes, usually through fellatio as at times the female has not reached puberty and the ever-present fear of ‘contamination’ from the blood of the woman (Meigs 1976, Herdt 1994).

The role of the wife bestows many responsibilities and expectations. Women are obligated to undertaking “[a] disproportionate share of both the drudgery and heavy work entailed in daily life” (Read 1952, pg. 227). They are

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