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Women who suffer & die because of what they know

Phil Fitzpatrick at micPHIL FITZPATRICK

TUMBY BAY - In this era of changing and declining employment opportunities we often hear the phrase ‘loss of corporate memory’.

Corporate memory is the accumulated experience and knowledge of workers. When a company retires, lays off or replaces older workers it inevitably loses some of this memory and mistakes and actions that should not occur often do.

When the kiaps and other expatriates left Papua New Guinea at independence they took a lot of corporate memory with them and the new nation suffered for it.

Just like corporate memory there is also a body of knowledge that could be called ‘cultural memory’.

Every society, no matter how it is organised, has a body of cultural knowledge at its core. Only large-scale catastrophes can destroy such knowledge.

This knowledge is obviously valuable and can bestow a lot of power on those who hold it.

I’ve written elsewhere about this element in indigenous societies in Australia where fragmentation and social breakdown has left the women as the main holders of cultural knowledge.

The reason why this happened is that the men often bore the brunt of invasion, with many being killed. Later, it was the men who had to go away to work and lose contact with their roots. And, in more recent times, it was the men who sort solace in memory-destroying activities like drugs and alcohol.

A similar thing happened in many parts of Papua New Guinea. While the men were dazzled by the bright lights of the cities and all that entails, the women often had to stay at home and continue the old ways, working the gardens, looking after pigs, foraging for wild food and bringing up children.

All the men’s houses may be gone but the women still work in the gardens, as they have done for centuries past. In short, doing and maintaining all the things that form the bedrock of their societies.

The cultural knowledge held by the women may be mundane but it is a necessity for their continuing lives and their place as stalwarts of their families. From the women’s point of view there is nothing remarkable about it.

It is a tradition that has been passed on to them by their mothers and grandmothers. However, when issues like land ownership come up, it can become crucial and sometimes dangerous.

In the social mapping I’ve done in Australia and Papua New Guinea, I’ve always made a point of talking to the women. If I want to know how a society works and how things like inheritance devolve, it is usually the women who hold the answers.

There is an unfortunate downside to this, however, and this is the resentment that many culturally disenfranchised men feel towards their knowledgeable women.

Through no fault of anyone, there has been a subtle power shift in favour of these women.

Sometimes men faced with women’s superior cultural knowledge react unfavourably. Even in the most sophisticated societies this knowledge is often derided as ‘old wives’ tales’ and the like.

In less sophisticated societies the reactions can be more visceral. A good example is the burning of witches in the highlands.

Many of these unfortunate women are punished, not because they are evil or have supernatural powers, but because they possess powerful cultural knowledge.

There are many reasons why men act violently towards women. Many of the reasons are extremely subtle and not immediately obvious.

The inadvertent possession and control of cultural memory could be one of them.

In sexual politics power, and who holds it, is a significant factor.

Many women, by accident or design, suffer simply for what they know.


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