Papua New Guinea Papua New Guinea, officially called the Independent State of

Papua New Guinea
Papua New Guinea, officially called the Independent State of Papua New Guinea, occupies the eastern half of the island of New Guinea as well as hundreds of small islands located in the Southwestern Pacific Ocean.
Papua New Guinea’s culture has been shaped by many forces throughout history. Geographic features have played a role; the terrain includes mountains, rainforests, swamps, and active volcanoes. This makes traveling within the country difficult. Some parts of Papua New Guinea are only accessible by foot or by airplane. There are areas of Papua New Guinea that are largely unexplored and completely cut off from outside influence. This may be why most of the population has lived in rural areas, disconnected from one another and the rest of the world.
The physical separation of the people has led, in part, to a diversity of cultures. There are over 820 indigenous languages being spoken throughout the country and hundreds of ethnic groups. Papua New Guinea is home to more languages than any other country in the world.
Historically, these pockets of people were organized into kinship groups — tribes of people consisting of family members, in-laws, and other personal connections. Leadership, language, and customs differ from kinship group to kinship group. These tribes were traditionally led by a “Big Man,” or a person who was able to establish relationships, trade ties, and support within the tribe and among other tribes. Disputes were handled in tribal courts and determined using customary, traditional laws.
Early missionaries began to impose Christianity on Papua New Guinea in the 1800’s, which was blended with local spiritual beliefs. Today, most families and tribes do not have spiritual leaders. Instead, it is believed that all adults acquire some knowledge of sorcery and spirituality related to growing crops, matters of love, and healing. Some “Big Men” claim to have powerful spiritual abilities, but for the most part, the adults in each kinship group mostly tend to their own spiritual practices.
Daily life is largely centered around agriculture, with many communities and villages primarily farming to eat. Generally, men clear the land and butcher animals, while women cook, garden crops, and tend to livestock. Childrearing is handled by both men and women. Within families, the elderly have more power in the decision-making process and are much more likely to inhabit a position of leadership within the family or tribe. Children are allowed to run free in early childhood, and then they are taught by example. Young girls follow older women, and young boys follow the men (Advameg, Inc., n.d.).
The islands that make up Papua New Guinea were inhabited over a 40,000-year period. However, outside influences began to shape the traditional culture of Papua New Guinea in the 1930’s, as an influx of missionaries brought new religion, built infrastructure, created a formal system of education, and impacted the economy. In the 1960’s, Australia began taking steps to ready Papua New Guinea for independence. Colonizers created a centralized government and provided a set of uniform laws, taking some power away from the “Big Men” that formerly ruled.
Readying the country for this transition also meant trying to unite Papua New Guineans in a sense of national identity rather loyalty to their individual kinships. This was largely done through higher education, which was also intended to prepare the country’s population for government on a global level. While the generations attending school did become formally educated, their parents did not pass along their native languages. As a result, younger generations became farther and farther removed from their kinship roots, unable to connect or communicate with their extended family members. Patchy availability of formal education and resources created a socio-economic stratification.
After nearly a decade of external rule by Australia, the United Nations, and Germany, Papua New Guinea became an independent nation state under the Commonwealth of the Queen in 1975. The country is ruled by a Prime Minister, a governor general to represent the British Crown, and a parliamentary cabinet that represents each of nineteen provinces. Federal courts enforce federal law, and a national police force maintains order.
While this may seem straightforward, the transition between tribal groups to united nation did not go entirely smoothly. As a result, there is some ambiguity about how leadership is handled in present day Papua New Guinea. “Big Men” still exist, but they have less power than they previously did. The police force is feared in rural areas because they tend to use excessive force. Many are afraid to approach the police or report crimes at all.
Instead, Papua New Guineans settle disputes themselves, or they utilize the old village courts. These measures to settle disputes often resort to older, customary traditions instead of federal law. Often, the practices and rulings of these village-based legislative systems are exactly the opposite of the official laws of the country. For example, polygamy is not legally permitted, but it is practiced on a large scale within Papua New Guinea because it is customarily accepted.
Most people only have access to these village courts when they are trying to find justice or resolve conflicts. Therefore, many illegal practices are still very common, and many legally guaranteed rights for some citizens are ignored.
The tension between the federal government and tribal kinships plays a large part in how women are treated in Papua New Guinea. On a national level, women legally have many of the same rights and protections as men: parental authority, financial responsibility, property rights, the right to assembly, and rights to participate in politics. But in rural areas — where as much as 80 percent of the population lives — customary laws and courts allow for discrimination in favor of men.
For example, women should be able to inherit property according to federal law, but the courts often give inheritances to men. Sexual assault is also a serious and widespread problem that women face in Papua New Guinea. The US Department of State reports widespread sexual abuse by police. Although rape is a crime in Papua New Guinea, accused rapists rarely face any legal consequences. Finally, women are more likely to be illiterate than men, since education is generally considered more important for men than for women.
Women’s social roles are also limited. Since family units are the central elements of Papua New Guinean society, women are likely to be defined in terms of their roles within the family—as daughters, mothers, or elders. Parents often arrange their young daughters’ marriages. They may consent to have their daughters married as young as 14 if they are physically developed enough. Dowries, or bride prices, are also common. If a woman is unhappy in her marriage, she may (in some instances) return home; however, in other instances, she must threaten or actually commit suicide to escape her husband.
Despite this, many international groups are working to bring awareness to instances of domestic violence and empower women in Papua New Guinea.
Margaret Mead and the Chambri
Although many tribes in Papua New Guinea face limits as a result of their gender roles, this is not the case in every Papua New Guinean community. In 1933, Margaret Mead conducted a now famous anthropological study of three villages known as the Chambri community, concluding that within this community women had more power and influence than their male counterparts. Mead observed that Chambri women are the primary providers of food for their communities, contributing not only to agriculture but also to fishing. Women in this community not only provide sustenance for their families, but they also engage in trade with other villages.
However, Mead’s findings are controversial. Other anthropologists have pointed out that although Chambri women are often the primary providers for their families, they still have limited political power and authority. While Mead saw Chambri women as holding a position of dominance over their male counterparts, other experts have suggested that neither gender is dominant among the Chambri people; instead, both men and women control their assigned domains without conflict.
Advameg, Inc. (n.d.). Papua New Guinea. Countries and Their Cultures.
Mead, M. (1935). Sex and temperament in three primitive societies. William Morrow & Company, Inc.
Social institutions and gender index. (2014). Papua New Guinea.
Women’s empowerment. (n.d.). United Nations.