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Women Speak Out! A Report of the Pacific Women's Conference. October 27 – November 2



The Law Reform Commission was established in April 1975 to review all the Laws of Papua New Guinea and suggest reforms page 59 that will make the laws more suitable to the conditions and needs of this country. The Commission reports to the Minister for Justice. There are five Commissioners, all Papua New Guineans:

  • Chairman: Bernard Narakobi, a lawyer, from Sepik; Deputy Chairman: Francis Iramu, a magistrate, from Port Moresby;

  • Nahau Rooney, a social welfare worker, from Manus; Charles Lepani, Director of the Central Planning Office, from the Trobiand Islands;

  • Meg Taylor, a lawyer working in the Prime Minister's Office, from the Waghi Valley.

The varied occupations and backgrounds of the Members express the Minister's intention that the Commission should not be composed just of lawyers from the capital city, but should represent many different professions and regions in Papua New Guinea.

In order to make the law more suitable to Papua New Guinea, the Commission must look at two things – (1) the traditions of the people as expressed in their customary law, and (2) the aims and needs of the people as expressed in their new Constitution. Sometimes, these two sources of the law oonflict. This is especially true in the field of women's rights.

For example, the Constitution makes it clear that women should be treated equally. The first clause of the Constitution reads:

“We declare our first goal to be for every person to be dynamically involved in the process of freeing himself or herself from every form of domination or oppression so that each man or woman will have the opportunity to develop as a whole person in relationship with others.”

and the second clause:

“We declare our second goal to be for all citizens to have an equal opportunity to participate in, and benefit from, the development of our country.”

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The Parliament explained that this second goal specifically referred to equal opportunities for women. To implement the second goal, they called for:

“recognition of the principle that a complete relationship in marriage rests on equality of rights and duties of the partners, and that responsible parenthood is based on that equality.”

Thus, in the Constitution, the Law Reform Commission find a clear directive to propose laws that help women become equal. But, when the Commission looks to customary law, our other major source for law reform, we find many laws and practices that go against equality for women.

In the field of succession: Under customary law, it is men who inherit property, not women - even in matrilineal societies, the land passes through the women's line, but goes to men in that line. In most PNG socieities, when a man dies, his sons or nephews inherit his land. His daughters may receive some fruit trees or personal property, but they do not get parts of their father's land. And, when a man dies, his wife does not expect to inherit anything - even the children, who stay with their father's line. In fact, in many PNG societies, wives themselves can be inherited. When a man dies, his brothers inherit his wife or wives.

In family law: Under customary law, the men of the clan “own” the women. A girl does not choose whom she will marry - her father and uncles, and sometimes her brothers, choose for her. They do not make the choice based on her happiness. They choose a husband for her according to what will be good for the clan. Thus, if they wish to form an alliance with the men of another clan, they will marry her into that clan. If they have killed a person in another clan, they will marry her as part of the compensation payments to that clan, so that she can produce a child for that clan to replace the person who was killed. Women often found themselves, in the days when clans frequently went to war, married into a clan that had become enemies of her own clan. Sometimes, when the two clans went to war, the woman's husband killed her because she was a representative of the hated enemy.

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Marriage involved an exchange of valuables - pigs, shells, and (today) money. This was called the “Bride Price”, but none of it ever went to the bride. It went from her husband's family, who were buying her and the children she would have, to her father's family.

Black and white photograph of a woman.

Men in Papua New Guinea could have many wives, and rich men did have more than one wife. Women were not expected to love their husbands - or to be loved by them. They were expected to work long hours in the gardens, then walk home carrying huge loads of firewood and food, then go to the river for water, then cook dinner - and through it all, tend the children. While they did all this work, the men occassionally hunted or fished - or mostly sat under the trees and “protected” the women from enemy attacks.

In divorce law: This was probably the only area of family law where women had any equality. A woman could, if things got too unbearable, leave her husband and return to her own page 62 family. However, women found it difficult to do this for two reasons: (1) her family would have to return the bride price they had received for her, if the divorce turned out to be her fault and not her husband's. Her family might therefore be unwilling to welcome her back; (2) if she came from a patrilineal society, she would not be able to take her children with her when she leaves her husband - they belong to his clan.

In property law: In a few areas of PNG, women could and did own land or other important valuables. But, in most societies, although women did most of the work in the gardens, it was men who owned the land on which the gardens were made and the houses built. Men also owned the shells and other valuables used in trade and prestige ceremonies. Women did all the work of caring for pigs - even breast-feeding sick piglets - but their husbands owned them and decided when they would be traded, killed for a feast or given to someone else.

Black and white photograph of a woman holding a pig.

Women care for the pigs but their husbands own them.

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And, in most societies, men built sacred houses where they kept masks, drums, flutes and other ritual objects; women were not even allowed in the houses, let alone to own anything in them.

In criminal law: Adultery law is a good example of the way that customary law considered women to be the property of men - of their fathers and brothers before they were married, and of their husbands afterwards. A married man could, in most societies, have intercourse with whomever he wished. Men frequently raped the women of a conquered village. But it was considered a great crime for a married woman - or even a single girl - to have intercourse with someone other than her husband. She would be punished severely for it, and the man who had intercourse with her would have to pay compensation to her family. This is because a woman's sexual ability - particularly her ability to bear children – was “owned” by her father and his clan. It was the commodity they sold when they married her to someone. After her marriage, it was owned by her husband and his clan.

This is a very one-sided picture of Papua New Guinea customary law. There was much in our customary life that was good for both men and women. But I have presented this side of things in order to emphasise the difficulty that our Law Reform Commission has faced in creating laws that will, at the same time, promote equality for women and preserve customary law.