New Internationalist Issue 270
Disarming the fist
'We pay for our wives, so we own them and can belt them any time we like,' said the Government minister in Papua New Guinea in 1987. He couldn't say it now. Christine Bradley explains why.
'Dear Sir or Madam, I am one of the students in Tari Community School in Southern Highlands Province. Now I want to tell you about my family problem. My father comes and argues and hits my mother and I feel sorry for my mother. Sometimes I don't go to school and I stay with my mother at home. When he sees me that I don't go to school, he comes and hits me. I would really appreciate your help.'
This is a real letter, one of many like it that fattened the files of Papua New Guinea's Law Reform Commission (LRC) after it began its campaign against wife-beating in 1986. Until then, 'wife-bashing' - as it is known locally - was seen as a personal problem, something to be discussed in the tea-breaks at women's meetings, but never put on the agenda and addressed as an important shared concern. Officially, wife-beating was against national law, inherited from Australia. Yet in every town the Monday morning after pay-Friday would reveal a crop of black eyes amongst the female bank tellers, secretaries and supermarket check-out girls, evidence of drunken husbands reminding their wives who's boss. In a famous national court case involving a cabinet minister accused of rape, the fact that he had previously beaten the girl on several occasions was offered as a defence: the beatings 'proved' that he regarded the girl as his wife and therefore could not be accused of raping her (Papua New Guinean wives have no right to refuse sex with their husbands).
In the villages, a husband's right to chastise his wife physically was accepted, with some tribes even recognising this by presenting a stick to the bridegroom in return for the payment of bride-price. The payment of bride-price by a man's extended family to the family of the bride is how a customary marriage is marked in most parts of the country. In the eyes of many Papua New Guineans, it is also what gives a man the right to beat his wife if she displeases him. 'We pay for our wives, so we own them and can belt them any time we like,' was how one Government minister put it back in 1987.
The country is strongly male-dominated, with few opportunities for women in public life. In the 20 years since Independence, for example, there have been only three female members of Parliament and currently there are none. The National Council of Women had no tradition of women's-rights activism, having its roots in the sewing, baking and Bible-study classes set up by missionaries and former colonizers; but it was becoming alarmed at what appeared to be increasing rates of wife-beating. Hearing that women in other countries were organizing against domestic violence, it appealed to the Government for help. The Government responded by directing the LRC to investigate the problem and come up with some solutions. The Commission not only did this but proceeded to implement most of its own recommendations. And so was born a new social movement.
Since the second UN Women's Conference in Kenya in 1985, when women from all parts of the world began to uncover the full extent of their shared experience of violence, there have been many attempts to tackle wife-beating. PNG is one of the few developing countries - perhaps the only one - to embark on a comprehensive nationwide programme of legal, social and educational measures.
The major effort was concentrated on a massive public-education campaign to try to change attitudes to wife-beating. Joining forces with the Women and Law Committee (a volunteer group of six professional women), the LRC published a series of leaflets and posters and a video called Stap Easi (Take it Easy). These explained what was wrong with wife-beating and how beaten wives could get help from the law. Hundreds of thousands of these were distributed nationwide, even in the most remote areas. A young people's theatre group toured villages, often on foot, performing plays about the evils of wife-beating and working with local groups to develop their own plays. National radio participated by broadcasting plays, panel discussions, documentaries, interviews and recordings of training sessions. Local action groups sprang up all over the country, one of which produced a reggae song called Noken Paitim Meri! (Don't hit your wife!) that became a smash hit on the national airwaves. Even the Catholic Church joined the campaign, requiring that young men preparing to marry should disclaim any right to beat their wives and granting dispensations for wives to leave husbands who beat them.
In towns, the police policy of not becoming involved in domestic disputes had left women without protection. As a result of the campaign the policy was changed and police began treating wife-beating like any other form of assault, arresting and prosecuting offenders.
The campaign continued to gain strength until 1991, when civil war, an increasing crime rate, the impact of structural-adjustment policies and other economic difficulties began to impede the work.
There are no statistics to show how effective the campaign has been in reducing the amount of wife-beating or in changing attitudes, but it has certainly succeeded in rolling the ball a long way in the right direction. And all of this, except for legislation, was achieved through the voluntary co-operation of thousands of individuals, as many men as women, against initial opposition from the nation's highest body. One MP's response to the LRC's first report was: 'We are wasting our time instead of discussing the development of the country. We should have something better to discuss than this!'
Domestic violence is not an issue in PNG alone. Exactly the same thing happened in Canada's Parliament in 1984 when a woman MP calling for a discussion on domestic violence was met with laughter and ridicule. Researchers in the US estimate that a quarter of the population still think it's acceptable for a husband to hit his wife in some circumstances. In Canada, studies show that at least one in eight women currently suffers from domestic violence, and one in four women experiences some form of sexual abuse in her lifetime.
Development itself can be a link in the chain of stress and violence. Rapid social change sweeps away centuries-old ways of doing things, creating stress and insecurity. Women still have motherhood, but men have lost the traditional sources of their manhood. In PNG many women have noticed that their husband's violence against them increases when their husbands are out of work, and at the start of the school year when husbands have to find the money for the children's school fees. The wives of smallholders in rubber and oil-palm development schemes reported being beaten by their husbands when the prices for those commodities fell on the world market.
Women who are afraid of their husband's violence cannot make any decisions for themselves, cannot attend meetings or participate in development activities, cannot prevent their husbands from taking their earnings and spending them on drink, cannot control their fertility, cannot further their own education or advance their own or their family's situation in any meaningful way. Wife-beating has high economic costs in terms of work-hours lost, and of medical, legal and other services provided to victims. It helps create a high level of violence in society, leads to family instability and keeps women in their place as second-class citizens under men's control.
It is this last point which is perhaps the most damaging. When women are forced to endure the humiliation and pain of male violence against them, they experience themselves as weak, vulnerable, helpless, inadequate and afraid. Even those women who have not been beaten themselves are intimidated by the knowledge that they could be. There is an urgent need for governments and development agencies to recognize wife-beating as a serious problem affecting and affected by development, and to provide resources to deal with it. Because as long as women are made to feel inferior by men's violence against them, they will never achieve their full potential - as people or as agents for development.
Christine Bradley is a social anthropologist who has spent 11 years in PNG, including 5 years running the Law Reform Commission's programme on violence against women. She now lives in Canada.
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995